KASKASKIA, Ill. – Look around the world and you’ll find international borders defined by geographical features like mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, and oceans. The United States is no different.
As settlers—and eventually, Americans—swept across the country, they would use rivers and other waterways to establish state or territorial borders. It is most apparent in the Northeast, Midwest, and South. A staggering 45 states use a river or waterway as a border (Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming are the exceptions).
But what happens when a river or waterway shifts or changes course? You wind up with what’s known as an exclave. It’s uncommon but not altogether rare.
For example, Rosecrans Memorial Airport in St. Joseph, Missouri, is only accesible by driving west across the Missouri River and traveling through Elwood, Kansas. Grand Tower Island sits to the east of the Mississippi River but is still considered part of Perry County, Missouri.
The most well-known exclave in our region is an historic village located on an island approximately 51 miles south of St. Louis.
Kaskaskia is part of Randolph County, Illinois, but is located the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. The village has a current population of 21 people, making it the second least populace incorporated community in Illinois.
The area was home to indigenous people—the Kaskaskia, part of the Illinois Confederation of tribes—before French settlers and missionaries arrived in 1703. As the settlement grew, it became the capitol of Upper Louisiana. In 1741, King Louis XV sent a 140-pound bell to a local church as a gift, bearing the inscription Pour Leglise des Illinois par les Soins du Roi D’outre L’eau (“For the Church of the Illinois, by gift of the King across the water”). It became known as the “Liberty Bell of the West” after American revolutionaries, led by George Rogers Clark, captured the town from the British on July 4, 1778.
Kaskaskia was originally the capitol of the Illinois Territory. When Illinois became a state in 1818, Kaskasia, with its population of 7,200 residents, became its first capital. Unfortunately, that designation was transferred to Vandalia in 1819. As all of this happened, Kaskaskia was on the eastern side of the Mississippi River like the rest of the state.
In the coming decades, the population evaporated and deforestation made it easier for the Mississippi to flood Kaskaskia and the surrounding areas. In 1844, another devastating flood forced the residents of Kaskaskia to move the town south. By 1881, the Mississippi River shifted more than two miles to the east, overrunning the channel of the nearby Kaskaskia River. The flood of 1881 destroyed what was left of the original Kaskaskia and effectively turned the area into an island.
By the turn of the 20th century, just 200 people lived in the village. Despite the construction of levees around the town and along the river, persistent flooding has nearly turned the former state capital into a ghost town. Floods in 1973 and against in 1993 submerged the town and permanently damaged the Kaskaskia Bell.
Kaskaskia residents and those wishing to visit the island can only get there via the Old Channel Road Bridge off S. Highway 61.