Exploring the Mystery and History of Southern Illinois

My partner and I have traveled all over the United States in a quest to see as much of this country as we can. We love nothing better than to visit scenic, historic and yes, haunted sites on our travels. We have literally driven for hours out of the way to glimpse old abandoned places with the reputation of either being a haunted or historical place.

That was the plan as we threw our luggage into the back of my car and rushed out onto the highway recently. It was the lure of haunted history as much as the predicted 5 inches of snow for Rockford that drove us south. We checked the weather once more and set our sights on visiting the southern part of our state. We had driven through the area many times on the way to other trips but had never spent much time there.

It was 8,000 – 10,000 years ago when people started to gather in the area around the south western part of Illinois. The Native Americans used the high bluffs along the Mississippi for shelter. They have left many traces of their time there. I will share some of that history in a later article.

The first European influence was the French explorers Joliet and Marquette who explored the area in 1673. Almost a decade passed before LaSalle came through and claimed the whole area for France. This opened up the area for French explorers and trappers. The first village to be built was in 1703 when the immigrants built the village of Kaskaskia.

The first stop on our adventure was the very old and very haunted Fort De Chartes by the little town of Prairie du Roche, not far from Kaskaskia. According to historical essays, the first fort was a wooden stockade built in 1718 to offer protection for the French fur trappers and their families. One site, however, mentioned that it was to control the ever rowdy French trappers from getting out of control and damaging the relations with the Native Americans in the area.

Either way, the fort went through several phases until 1760 when buildings were built from the limestone that was quarried in the area. The French turned over the fort to the British after the French and Indian War ended in 1763. Most of the French inhabitants moved over the river to St. Louis and St.Genevieve (both interesting sites in their own right.)

The fort fell into ruin when the British relocated to Kaskaskia and soon all that was left was the ammunition house.

The town of Prairie Du Rocher was captured by George Rogers Clark and his troop of men referred to as the “long knives” during the American Revolution. Their success was vital to gaining the control of what was referred to then as the northwest territory which included Ohio, Illinois,Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan.

George’s younger brother William (of Lewis and Clark fame) would later visit the old fort on his way through the area in 1803.

The ruins were rebuilt in the 1930’s and turned into a historical site. The site now hosts events which showcase the history of the area.

I was very excited to visit this historic site but because of the horrible weather we have been experiencing the entire area was closed off. We tried several ways of getting around the Road Closed signs and even though my partner promised me that driving through the water on the road “probably would be okay”, the sight of white caps flowing over the road made me decline his offer and the only picture I have to share of the glorious fort was this one:

The ghostly legend attached to this place started as far back as 1889 (as far as I have been able to confirm.) Apparently on July 4 of that year a woman who lived nearby the fort had lost a young child in her family. It was the family’s tradition at the time to sit up all night with the loved ones who passed away. This woman, called Mrs. Chris in the stories had a neighbor woman sitting with her. They had stepped outside to cool off from the heat of the house. It was close to midnight and Mrs. Chris and her friend were enjoying the cool breeze when suddenly the Chris’ dog started to bark. The women were startled by the noise but also what they saw when they looked down the road that ran by their house.

There in the moonlight they saw a group of men and women walking toward them. There were also carriages that carried other people. Toward the end of the strange procession came a wagon carrying a casket. The women were soon joined by Mrs. Chris’ husband who had been awakened by their barking dog. The trio watched in complete awe as the large group moved on toward the cemetery. Only when they had faded completely out of side did any of them dare to speak. Mr. Chris mentioned to the women that even though the procession contained probably close to 50 or more people and several wagons and carriages, they were absolutely silent. The three sat on the poach for the rest of the night, waiting for the people to return. They were disappointed in that, however. Though at the time, the Chris’ house sat on the only road running from the fort to the cemetery, no one else was spotted that night.

According to Troy Taylor’s article on the event, there might be two stories that could help explain for what the trio had witnessed. One story involved the murder of a local man by one of the French soldiers stationed at the fort. There was a disagreement between the two men that grew so heated that blows were exchanged. At the end of the fight, the town merchant lay dead at the soldier’s feet. Everyone in the fort was frightened about what the death of this popular man would do to the already strained relations between the soldiers and townspeople. The decision was made to bury the man respectfully but secretly in the Prairie du Roche Cemetery. It was this long ago procession of the soldiers and the dead merchant that Mrs. Chris and her friend might have witnessed. Though one must wonder why such a procession would have been made for a “secret burial”.

Troy also mentions another murder that took place in 1765. This time the fight was between a British officer and a French one. Apparently, the two men were rivals in more than one way. Not only did they want the fort for their respected countries, they also had feelings for the same young lady. A duel was accepted and the British officer was killed. Supervisors from both sides believed that if the news of the officer’s death were to be revealed, it would damage the already tenuous relations between the two countries. The French officer was sent away and the British officer was quietly buried in the local cemetery.

After the Chris’ sighting of the ghostly procession more folks would gather to spot the procession. Finally, someone realized that it happened only when July 4 fell on a Friday. So the legend goes that if you want to witness the ghostly funeral procession just be there around midnight when July 4th falls on a Friday. (Just as a FYI- that will be 2025.)

To read more about this interesting place:
The Illinois Guide to Haunted Locations by Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk.(2007)
Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois by John Allen

Copyright © 2019, 2022 Kathi Kresol.