I wrote a bit about this last week and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts and findings regarding early ball-playing in the Illinois Country in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Before I proceed, let me define the concept of the Illinois Country for those who are unaware of it. Essentially, the Illinois Country was a geographical, rather than political or legal, entity. It was the part of North America, claimed, explored and settled by the French in the 17th and 18th century, that is pictured in the above map. While the borders of the Illinois Country were largely undefined, basically it was the great river valley that was created by the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri Rivers. The northern border was normally considered the Illinois River, the eastern border was the Wabash River and the western border was undefined (but certainly extended west of the Mississippi). Before France lost her territories east of the Mississippi to England after the French and Indian War, the Illinois Country was considered part of Upper Louisiana. After the French and Indian War, the Mississippi River became the western border of the Illinois Country.
I think that the concept of the Illinois Country is useful for looking at the spread and development of baseball in America for several reasons. First, it takes out the arbitrariness of modern state borders. It allows us to look at the spread of the game in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Iowa as an organic whole rather than on a state-by-state basis. It gives us a look at the bigger picture in a more natural way. Secondly, when we look at ball-playing in the Illinois Country, we are looking at the influence that two different cultures had on the game. In general, the area was settled first by the French and then by Anglo-Americans and each culture was unique. It's safe to assume that each culture was playing different ball-games and that the interaction between the two in the Illinois Country had an effect on the development of the game in the area. Finally, I believe that the concept of the Illinois Country gives us not only a geographical and cultural construct to work with but it also gives a well-defined time frame to investigate. We know when the first Europeans came to the area and we know when the first settlements were established. Looking at the history of the Illinois Country allows us to go to the beginning of ball-playing in the area.
My look at ball-playing in the Illinois Country, however, leaves out one thing that I think I should mention. There is substantial evidence of ball-playing by the Native Americans in the Illinois Country and there is no doubt that they were playing ball games prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Personally, I find this rather interesting and have enjoyed reading 18th century accounts of Native American ball games. But, for our purposes, I'm not certain if these accounts are relative to an investigation into the development and spread of pre-modern baseball in the Illinois Country. There is no evidence that I'm aware of that shows these games influencing pre-modern baseball. I may very well be and would love to be wrong about this. I'm open to any arguments or ideas that anyone would like to suggest about Native American ball-playing and how it should be treated in an investigation of the development of the pre-modern game.
All of this information was developed while working on the SABR Spread Project and I should thank Larry McCray for, one, involving me in the project and, two, focusing my attention on Illinois. As I've said many times, I'm very parochial in my research and thinking. I'm interested in 19th century baseball in St. Louis and that's where my focus has been. This parochial mindset has given me a set of biases that has blinded me to certain possibilities when it comes to the spread of the pre-modern game and the origins of ball-playing in St. Louis. It's always been my thinking that any ball-playing in the region originated in St. Louis and spread outward from there. St. Louis was the biggest town, had the most people and the largest cultural and economic impact on the region. St. Louis influenced other towns in the region the way the gravitation of the Earth influences the orbit of the Moon. What I've failed to think about is that the Moon also has influence on the Earth and the towns and people of the Illinois Country had a cultural and economic influence on St. Louis. Also, and just as important, St. Louis was not the first settlement in the Illinois Country. There were Europeans living in the area before the city was established and that's also something that I overlooked.
While getting the Spread Project underway, Larry passed along a couple of early Illinois references from the Protoball Chronology that peaked my interest. Attempting to run down more information about these references, I got pulled into the history of the settlement of the Illinois Country. Over the next few days, I'll share some of what I found as well as some speculation about the origins of ball-playing in the Illinois Country.