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Reflections: Midwest winter travel has always been strangely popular

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 11:30 a.m. CDT
(Photo provided)
During the late winter of 1680, Robert Cavelier de La Salle and a couple companions hiked from Peoria to Canada, as imagined by artist George Catlin in this painting, part of a series commissioned by French King Louis Philippe in the 1840s. While LaSalle was prompted to take their winter walk due to financial problems, it was also easier to travel thanks to the lack of biting flies and mosquitoes.

These days, individuals, couples and whole families think nothing of driving to O’Hare or Midway, and hopping a plane to Florida or the Caribbean, or California to escape the cold.

But winter travel wasn’t so easy once upon a time – and in fact not all that long ago – but strangely enough it was the preferred time for overland journeys during Illinois’ earliest colonial days.

The first European explorers made their way to Illinois from Canada, making use of the region’s extensive system of lakes and rivers. Louis Jolliet, the intrepid French explorer and mapmaker, and his companion, Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., guided the members of their small expedition consisting of two birchbark canoes, west from Fort Michilimackinac at the strait between Lakes Michigan and Huron, and then down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay in 1673.

From there, their course led them up Wisconsin’s Fox River and across the portage to the Wisconsin River, and then downstream to the Mississippi. Paddling down the Mississippi, they eventually reached the Arkansas River, where Joliet determined the Mississippi’s course was due south to the Gulf of Mexico and not southwest to the Pacific, plus fear of Spanish interference caused them to turn around and head back north to Lake Michigan, taking a shortcut up the Illinois River.

As they passed through the rich prairie lands along the river, both Marquette and Jolliet accurately predicted the region would someday make excellent farmland.

One of the things that made the land rich was the region’s extensive system of wetlands, with swamps and sloughs peppering the Illinois prairie, along with timbered groves. Until those wetlands were drained, they spawned millions of black flies, horse and deer flies, and mosquitoes by the tens of millions. First-person accounts by the hardy early explorers and missionaries unlucky enough to travel the prairies in summer are replete with complaints about the clouds of stinging and biting insects.

As a result, travel was mostly confined to the watercourses during the summer months, though even by keeping to the center of rivers, including the mighty Mississippi, was no guarantee of avoiding hordes of insects. Only during the fall and winter when the insects were dead and the landscape frozen was overland travel the least bit comfortable. If you can call making your way across Illinois’ tundra-like frozen landscape in winter “comfortable.”

French explorer and entrepreneur Robert Cavelier de LaSalle, for instance, conducted his first expedition to Illinois in the late fall of 1679 by sailing ship and then canoe. When financial reverses (including the loss of his ship, the Griffin) compelled him to return to Canada and France to settle accounts, he left the Peoria area in the very early spring of 1680, traveling overland across the frozen prairie, avoiding both the insects and the extensive swamps.

When LaSalle mounted his second expedition to colonize Illinois, this one successful, he set off in the very early spring down the Illinois River. It was so cold that the river was frozen solid, and the party mounted their canoes on runners, towing them down the frozen stream until they found open water south of Peoria.

Due to its isolation, Illinois was settled by Europeans very slowly. By the late 1700s, only a few hundred French residents lived in the small villages of Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Prairie du Rocher, stretching along the banks of the Mississippi in what is now southern Illinois.

When Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry sent Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark and 180 men to occupy the Illinois Country in the summer of 1778 to stop British-led Indian attacks on the western Virginia frontier, the expedition floated down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to their advance base at the site of old Fort Massac. From there, they walked across the southern pit of Illinois to the French villages on the Mississippi.

The tall prairie grass, the heat, and the insects made the march a hard one, but on July 4, Kaskaskia was captured without firing a shot. When the British counterattacked by capturing Vincennes, Indiana, effectively cutting Clark off from Virginia, the intrepid commander ordered a march across Illinois in February. During the march his small army had to deal with flooded streams – the Wabash had grown to three miles in width – but at least they didn’t have to cope with clouds of biting flies.

The state’s waterways remained the favored mode of transportation until Americans arrived in greater numbers during the first decade of the 19th century, when roads finally and gradually became important. The settlers who began arriving in Northern Illinois in the 1820s sometimes came by foot and horseback, but more and more often covered wagons hauled family possessions from the East along the National Road to Vandalia or on the Territorial Road from Detroit to Chicago before they arrived at the claims they had usually previously prospected months earlier.

As all those Eastern farmers arrived, they almost immediately began draining the state’s extensive wetlands. The elimination of Illinois’ swamps and sloughs created additional farmland, and also drastically decreased the numbers of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria, sometimes called, swamp fever or the ague, was common among our early settlers, but as the swamps disappeared, so did the diseases connected with them.

Within a few decades of their arrival, the settlers had eliminated most of the native prairie grasses, drained the sloughs, and forever altered the environment of Northern Illinois. Such profound changes always have negative and positive trade-offs. We’ll never again see native grasses and flowers stretching to the eastern horizon on Oswego Prairie in the spring. And without the regulating influence of extensive wetlands on stormwater runoff, floods became more frequent and more destructive. But then again, fewer and fewer of us had to worry about contracting malaria during Illinois’ muggy summer months.

And though we do it for very different reasons than did those early colonials, and while it’s a lot less arduous than it was in colonial days, it’s interesting that winter travel from Illinois is again popular.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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