The first non-Indigenous person to set up business in what is now Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. A French speaker of African descent, Point DuSable is believed to have been born in what is now Haiti, though much about his early life is unknown. (The book by Marc Rosier called Chicago’s Authentic Founder, referenced on the “Further Exploration” page, is an exhaustive study of DuSable, what we know and what we don’t know about his life.)
Outside Chicago, the Village of Bourbonnais and the surrounding area along the Kankakee and Iroquois Rivers boasts a French-Canadian heritage. Fur trader Noel LeVasseur and the brothers Antoine and Francois Bourbonnais, Sr., entered the Kankakee and Iroquois River Valleys as fur traders for the American Fur Company in the 1820s. In 1837, LeVasseur returned to his native Quebec Province to recruit French-Canadians to settle in northeastern Illinois when the Potawatomi were compelled to move west of the Mississippi River. Beginning in 1846, a considerable number of families arrived. Today the portion of Interstate 57 in the area has been designated the French-Canadian Heritage Corridor in recognition of this French-speaking heritage.
The French built several early short-lived forts along the Illinois River, including Fort Crèvecoeur at the site of today’s Peoria, Illinois. Another long-lasting community was formed near where the Kaskaskia River enters the Mississippi. A settlement of habitants, priests, and Natives—the Kaskaskia people—developed on the east side of the Mississippi River. The settlement was strengthened by the addition of the Fort de Chartres, first a wooden structure begun in 1719 and finally a stone fort begun in the 1750s. Today, historic buildings are still in place in the town of Prairie du Rocher and the reconstructed fort is open to visitors. Explore this region of le pays des Illinois at this site. Within the French Colonial Historic District is the home of Illinois’ first lieutenant governor, trader Pierre Ménard, as well as the village of Kaskaskia.