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Reflections: Flag Day reflections: six banners have flown over Illinois

Ella Park Lawrence holds the original Illinois state flag in 1915.
Ella Park Lawrence holds the original Illinois state flag in 1915.

In Montgomery’s Riverside Cemetery, the grave of Dr. Bernard J. Cigrand, who died in 1932 at the age of 65, takes on additional significance every June 14. Cigrand, you see, was the founder of Flag Day.

Cigrand was born to Luxembourg immigrants in Wisconsin. During his eventful life, he worked as a teacher, dentist, college professor and publisher.

After graduating high school, Cigrand taught school in Fredonia, Wis., and there the 19-year-old instructor had his students commemorate the anniversary of Congress’ adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the national banner as a special “Flag Birthday.” In later life, in numerous speeches and magazine and newspaper articles, Cigrand championed the establishment of a national “Flag Birthday” or “Flag Day.”

After serving as a dentist in World War I, Cigrand continued his efforts to champion national observance of the flag’s adoption. And that eventually led to President Woodrow Wilson signing a proclamation in 1916 that called for an annual, nationwide observance of Flag Day. Cigrand died at his Aurora home in 1932, but President Harry Truman honored his memory in 1949 – the early years of the Cold War—by signing a bill passed by Congress designating every June 14 as National Flag Day.

Here in Illinois, we have a long history of taking the flag seriously. The historical question hereabouts, however, is just which flag we’re seriously talking about. Because Illinois has seen six flags flying over the lands inside its boundaries during the past 335 years.

As far as we know, the first white man to bring a flag inside the bounds of what today comprise Illinois was the French explorer and entrepreneur Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle. LaSalle’s first attempt to colonize Illinois ended in ignominy in 1679. Four years lager, he made another attempt, this one successful.

In 1683, LaSalle’s expedition traveled all the way down the Illinois-Mississippi system to the Gulf of Mexico, whereupon he claimed the Mississippi’s entire watershed for France. And having thoughtfully brought a French imperial flag along, flew it over the fort he established atop Starved Rock, where our Fox River empties into the Illinois.

The French managed to hold onto their prize for about 80 years, during which they frequently fought against the British, who were encroaching on French colonial holdings from British colonies along the Atlantic coast. After the last war between the French an the British, and both sides’ Indian allies, France’s holdings in North America were ceded to the British in 1763. Which enraged most of the tribes living west of the Appalachian Mountains, who declined to be ceded and even fought a war – Pontiac’s Rebellion – over it. But in 1765, British troops finally marched into Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and flag No. 2 – the British Union Jack – was raised over Illinois.

The British hold on Illinois was even shorter than was France’s. After the Revolutionary War broke out, Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia sent an expedition west to what was then called “The Illinois Country” with the aim of conquest to stop destructive raids on Virginia’s western settlements. And on July 4, 1778, Col. George Rogers Clark and his militia regiment raised the Virginia state flag – flag No. 3 – over the colonial Illinois capital of Kaskaskia.

Clark was able to hold onto his conquest, but it was a tenuous hold. Not only did the British make attempts to take Illinois back, but Virginia officials also had to deal with occasional forays by Spanish troops. Spain had acquired what France called Louisiana, basically all of the area west of the Mississippi, north of Spanish Mexico and east of Spanish California, by the Treaty of Fontainebleau when it became clear France was going to lose its colonies east of the Mississippi to the British. At least twice during the Revolutionary War, Spanish expeditions marched northeast from St. Louis to claim the modern Midwest for Spain. One of these small, quixotic groups even managed to reach Fort St. Joseph on the St. Joseph River over in Indiana, capture the place, and raise the flag of Imperial Spain, claiming The Illinois Country for Spain – and making it flag No. 4.

The Revolutionary War years were chaotic out here in Illinois. No one really knew who was in charge. Was it George Rogers Clark, the military commander? Or was it the politicians sent out from Williamsburg? The confusion eventually led to no order at all.

The Virginia Assembly, realizing they had no authority and even less money to spend on creating law and order, sensibly decided to wash their hands of the whole problem, signing The Illinois Country over to the Federal government soon after the war officially ended. So the United States flag (flag number 5) flew, at last, over what would one day be the state of Illinois.

But it took some time for the government in Washington to establish order, too, a process interrupted by various wars with the region’s Native American tribes (during which the U.S. Army suffered its worst defeat ever at the hands of the Native People’s military forces), followed by the War of 1812 against, once again, the British.

It wasn’t until December of 1818 that Illinois was finally granted statehood by the U.S. Congress, following months of political maneuvering that finally resulted in establishing the state’s current boundaries.

In 1819, the Illinois General Assembly adopted the state’s first Great Seal, but no state flag was to be formally adopted for nearly a century. Not until 1912 was there an organized effort to get Illinois to adopt a state flag. The Daughters of the American Revolution spearheaded the effort and on July 6, 1915, the General Assembly finally approved the DAR’s contest-winning flag design of Lucy Wilder Derwent. And we finally had flag number six.

Flag Day is generally a low key holiday, but it probably ought to be more popular than it is, especially since Flag Day’s founder is buried right here in the Fox Valley.

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