Five thousand words later, I promise that I'm wrapping this up. Probably.
I think that there are two benefits to looking at the history of ball-playing in the Midwest within the context of the history of the Illinois Country. First, it gives us a well defined time frame and a better defined geographical framework to investigate the early history of baseball in the area. The Illinois Country defines the time frame that we should be researching. Marquette and Joliet begin their exploration of the area in 1673. Fort de Chartres is built in 1718. So we have a 150 year time frame to look at and research between the coming of the Europeans to the Illinois Country and the coming of the New York game. Geographically, it makes better sense to look at the Illinois Country, encompassing parts of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Iowa, rather than looking at things on a state-by-state basis. Modern state borders are rather arbitrary and have little to do with the cultural units that exist in the United States. Their is a much stronger cultural relationship between St. Louis, Missouri and Cahokia, Illinois than there is between Cahokia and Chicago or St. Louis and Kansas City. The geographical boarders of the Illinois Country (even defined as loosely as they are) provide a better cultural unit to investigate than do modern states.
The second benefit to the Illinois Country construct is that it illuminates early ball-playing in St. Louis (which is kind of what I'm about here at TGOG). It helps to place pioneer St. Louis in a proper context. St. Louis, like Kaskaskia or St. Genevieve, was just a little French trading village in the Illinois Country and did not have the cultural impact on the surrounding area that it would have later in the 19th century. St. Louis was heavily influenced by the French culture of colonial Upper Louisiana as well as the Anglo-American settlements in Illinois. It's entirely possible that the Anglo-Americans introduced pre-modern baseball to St. Louis and the relationship between the communities is something that we'll have to come to grips with if we want to understand the history of 19th century baseball in St. Louis.
I'm at the beginning of this project and it's something that I'm excited about. It's going to be a long-term, on-going thing that will take a great deal of time and effort to see through. Most of what is uncovered will probably end up at Protoball and whatever the SABR Spread Project becomes, although I'm sure that I'll post some of the more interesting things that are discovered here at the blog. I'm very much interested in bringing others into this and hope that we can get some of the local historical societies involved. Anybody that's interested in the history of early baseball in the Midwest or in the pioneer society of the Illinois Country should email me at email@example.com or leave a comment here at the blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts about all of this.
Basically, where we stand at this point is that I'm aware of ball-playing going on in the Illinois Country as early as the late 18th century and I believe that ball-playing was going in the Illinois Country from the time of first European settlements. These settlements didn't exist in a vacuum. They were part of a broader culture which had ball-playing as one of its features. It makes sense that the early pioneers brought this culture of ball-playing with them to the Illinois Country.
I have questions about ball-playing among the settlers of Southern Illinois. At the moment, there is little evidence suggesting ball-playing among the Southerners who settled the region until after the Yankees had settled the central part of Illinois. While I expect to find evidence of ball-playing in Southern Illinois in the 1800-1820 era, I'm thinking that the Yankees had an influence on the types of games played in Southern Illinois after 1820. Much more work needs to be done in this area and I still need to take a look at western Indiana and eastern Iowa (and Kentucky, for that matter). Where the settlers of Southern Illinois fit into the big picture at this point is still a mystery.
The influence that the Yankee settlers of central Illinois had on the area is unknown but we know that a ball-playing culture exits in central Illinois from the moment the Yankees show up. They bring not just ball games but it appears that they bring a specific form of pre-modern baseball that they called town-ball. There is no evidence suggesting that this form of pre-modern baseball was played among the French or Southern settlers of the Illinois Country. The earliest I can place pre-modern baseball in St. Louis is in the 1840s and that takes a generous interpretation of one specific source. But there are sources that place town-ball in Southern Illinois and parts of Missouri in the same period. So it's not much of a stretch to think that the Yankees brought pre-modern baseball to the Illinois Country in the 1820s and it spreads throughout the region in the next couple of decades. There is ample evidence to suggest that versions of the game were popular in the area in the 1850s.
Essentially, what I've presented here is a thin sketch of an outline tracing the development of pre-modern baseball in the Illinois Country from 1700 to the late 1850s, when the New York game found its way west. There is much work to be done fleshing out this outline and I'm certain that many of my conclusions will be reworked as more evidence comes to light. But I think we're off to a good start.