Monday, March 1, 2010

Some Thoughts On Ball-Playing In The Illinois Country, Part Two

As I wrote yesterday, the idea of looking at the history, spread and development of the pre-modern game within the context of the history of the Illinois Country represents, at least for me, a breakthrough in how to research, organize and present the history of baseball in the Midwest. I don't want to blow this out proportion or present it as the greatest thing since the invention of foul territory but I think it's a useful construct that hasn't been explored. If I were to write a grand, three-volume history of 19th century baseball in St. Louis, I would start with the European settlement of the Illinois Country because that's were the history of ball-playing in the area begins.

European involvement in the Pays des Illinois (the country of the Illinois Indians) began in the late 17th century, as the French solidified their claims to the area beginning with the explorations of Marquette and Joliet in 1673. They built a series of forts and settlements in the Illinois Country that can be seen in the above map. Missionary settlements were established at Cahokia and Kaskaskia in 1699 and 1703, respectively. Fort de Chartres was the first fort built in the area, in 1718, and the settlement of Prairie du Rocher was established near the fort in 1722. St. Genevieve was built in 1750 and Fort Massac, near present-day Metropolis, Illinois, was built seven years later.

This French colony in the Illinois Country does not appear to have been particularly large, with a population that never exceeded four thousand, and life in the colony centered around missionary work, mining and farming. The French had a difficult time getting people to come to the area from France itself and most of the early settlers were from French Canada.

I should mention at this point that I really don't know that much about life in the Illinois Country during the French colonial era but I'm in the process of reading about it and gathering information. A lot of the sources, obviously, are in French, a language which I can't speak or read. I could really use a translator. If anybody can read French and feels like translating a book about 19th century French children's games, let me know. The job makes up for its lack of pay by all the hard work that you have to put into it. But the point here is that we're at the beginning of this process and it's important to identify the French settlements in the Illinois Country so that we know were to begin to look for evidence of ball-playing.

Their are several sources that speak about ball-playing in French Illinois during this era but almost all of them are related to Native American games, specifically le jeu de la crosse (my French is improving by leaps and bounds the further I get into this project). The Gratiot source references ball-playing in late 18th century St. Louis but I've yet to find the original source. Henry Gratiot stated in 1825 that "when a Boy, he has frequently played Ball against [Motard's Mill.]" I had speculated that Gratiot may have been playing barn ball but further research leads me to believe that he was most likely playing la balle au mur (ball and wall). I've found a source with a long description of la balle au mur but, alas, it's in French and the translation is going to take some time. It appears to be a two-person game similar to handball but once I manage to translate the text, I'll know more.

But, at the moment, that's really it as far as sources describing ball-playing in the Illinois Country during the French colonial period. However, the Gratiot source confirms that the French settlers were playing ball-games and I believe that it's only a matter of time and effort before more sources emerge. The reason I believe this is simple: the French settlers brought their civilization with them to the Illinois Country and ball-playing was a part of that civilization. David Block, in Baseball Before We Knew It, wrote about the culture of ball-playing in France and raised questions about whether the French ball games influenced English baseball or vice versa. Specifically, he mentioned theque and le balle empoisonee but there were several other French ball games that were played during the colonial era including la balle au mur, la balle aux pots and balle au camp. Again, I'm in the process of translating text and discovering more about these games. While these games may or may not have had an impact on the development of baseball, they were more likely than not played in the Illinois Country in the 18th century and were probably the first European ball games played in the area.

When we look at the history, development and evolution of baseball in America, we tend to overlook the contributions of the French to the ball-playing culture that grew up in America in 18th and 19th century. This is understandable because of the prominent role that the English and the Anglo-Americans played in the development of the game in the Eastern part of the country. But we shouldn't overlook the contributions of the French and the impact that they had on American culture, specifically in the Illinois Country, New Orleans and the upper Midwest. In these areas, the first European ball-games played had to have been French ball-games. That fact, for some reason, appears to have slipped through the cracks.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the coming of the Anglo-Americans.

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