Fort de Chartres

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Architecture

Fort de Chartres was a French fortification first built in 1720 on the east bank of the Mississippi River (in present-day Illinois). The Fort de Chartres name was also applied to the two successive fortifications built nearby during the 1700s in the era of French colonial control over Louisiana and the Illinois Country in North America.

A partial reconstruction of the third and last fort, which was built of local limestone shortly before the end of French rule in the Midwest, is preserved in an Illinois state park south of St. Louis, Missouri, four miles West of Prairie du Rocher in Randolph County, Illinois.

The original fort's name honored Louis, duc de Chartres, son of the Regent of France. The fort's stone armory, which survived the gradual ruin that overtook the rest of the site, is considered the oldest building in the state of Illinois. The state park today hosts several large re-enactments of colonial-era civil and military life each summer at the fort.


The gatehouse of Fort de Chartres was reconstructed in the 1930s.
The gatehouse of Fort de Chartres was reconstructed in the 1930s.

The original wooden fort was built in 1718- 1720 by a French contingent from New Orleans, led by Pierre Dugué de Boisbriand, when administration of the Illinois Country was moved from Canada to New Orleans. Governance was transferred to the Company of the Indies and the fort was built to be the seat of government and to control the Indians of the region, particularly the Fox. The original fort was a pallisade of logs with two bastions at opposite corners.

Within five years, flooding from the Mississippi had left the original fort in bad condition. Construction of a second fort farther from the river, but still on the flood plain, began in 1725. This fort was also made of logs and had a bastion at each of the four corners.

The second wooden fort deteriorated somewhat less rapidly, but by 1742 it was in bad repair. In 1747 the French garrison moved to the region's primary settlement 18 miles to the south at Kaskaskia, and the French debated where to rebuild the fort. Discussions of a stone fortress had begun in the 1730s after the Company of the Indies had failed and governance had reverted to the crown. The government in New Orleans wanted to move the garrison permanently to Kaskaskia, but the local commandant argued for a location near the original.

The decision was eventually reached to build in stone near the first forts rather than at Kaskakia. Construction began in 1753 and was mostly completed in 1756. The limestone fort had walls 15 ft (3 m) high and 3 ft (1m) thick enclosing an area of 4 acres (16,000 m²). The stone for construction was quarried in bluffs about two or three miles (4 km) distant and had to be ferried across a small lake. In 1763 the Treaty of Paris was signed and the French transferred control of the Illinois Country to Great Britain. The stone fort had served as centre of French administration of the region for only ten years. The British had difficulty getting a regiment to their newly acquired fort, but on October 10, 1765, the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment took control of the fort and surrounding area. The fort was renamed Fort Cavendish. The British, however, saw little value in the fort and abandoned it in 1771.

Ruin and Reconstruction

One of the reconstructed bastions at the fort.
One of the reconstructed bastions at the fort.

The Mississippi continued to take its toll after the fort was abandoned, and in 1772 the south wall and bastion fell into the river. The remaining walls deteriorated, and visitors noted trees growing in them by the 1820s. Locals carted away the stone for construction bit by bit over the years, and by 1900 the walls were gone. The only part of the original fort that remained was the stone building that had served as the powder magazine.

The State of Illinois acquired the ruins in 1913 as a historic site and restored the powder magazine in 1917. The powder magazine is thought to be the oldest existing building in the state of Illinois. In the 1920s foundations of the fort's buildings and walls were exposed, and in the 1930s the WPA rebuilt the gateway and two stone buildings.

Partial reconstruction of the fort's walls followed later. The frames of some additional buildings were erected as a display of the post and beam construction techniques used on the originals. Other buildings' foundations and cellars were exposed for educational display as well.

Today the site has a museum and small gift shop. It plays host each June to a Rendezvous that is one of the largest and oldest in the country, celebrating frontier French and Indian culture. The site is protected by modern levees, but the Mississippi is still an occasional menace. In the flood of 1993 the levee was breached, and water fifteen feet deep lapped at the top of the walls.


  • Maps and aerial photos Coordinates: 38.084652° -90.157968°
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