Feeding the Atlantic Market: Enslaved Somatic Energy in Illinois Country Agriculture

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Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a short series of showcasing undergraduate student research in energy history. Emma Bock’s post is derived from an essay written for Andrew Watson’s course Energy and Power: The History of Energy at the University of Saskatchewan.

The economy of eighteenth-century France was dominated by the sugar trade, the most valuable commodity in their Atlantic market. Sugar profits were augmented through coerced somatic energy from enslaved labour in Caribbean and Lower Louisianan colonies. However, plantation modes of production did not produce many traditional foodstuffs such as wheat or livestock. Moreover, climates in Lower Louisiana and the Caribbean were not suitable for grain agriculture.1 How then did the French imperial government feed over half a million enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples, and French colonials?

On the eve of the Seven Years’ War, a British official analyzing colonial acquisitions noted the importance of “That vast tract of land of fertile country, on the eastern side of the Mississippi,” which “has been by many historians called the garden of the world.” They emphasized this bit of empire’s “richness of […] soil”, navigability, and connectedness to other parts of North America via “seven large rivers which arise out of the Appalachian hills […] and empty themselves into the Mississippi.”2 (See Image 1) The region described here was the eastern portion of the Illinois Country, a borderland colony which, between approximately 1720 to 1763, was responsible for feeding vast portions of the French Atlantic market. In 1730, it exported 100,000 livres of flour to New Orleans; by 1748, this had increased eightfold.3

Hand-drawn map of the Mississippi River. Several communities and natural landmarks are identified on the west (upper side) and east (lower side) of the river.
Image 1; Map of the discovery made in 1673 in North America. Carte de la découverte faite l’an 1672 dans l‘Amerique septentroniale.
Source: Jacques Marquette, Carte de la découverte faite l’an 1673 dans l’Americque septentrionale, 1673/1681, map, Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/digital/collection/nby_eeayer/id/15216/rec/46.

New France’s trade networks sent goods, people, and capital “swirling between New Orleans and Cahokia”.4 This would not have been possible without enslaved people who lessened New France’s chronic labour shortage. Nicholas Fiori notes that, “captivity was the driver of the plantation’s central energy source.”5 Enslaved bodies were exploitable natural resources. Though the Illinois Country never adopted a cash crop plantation system, the structure’s inegalitarianism and dehumanization was core to Upper Louisiana’s agricultural productivity. Cécile Vidal’s Caribbean New Orleans examines this more closely, claiming that the strict separation of continental and Caribbean New France is short-sighted. Influence of Caribbean slave systems “was […] felt as far north as the Illinois Country”, flowing up the Mississippi River far into the interior.6 In this sense, New Orleans functioned as a liminal space between continental and Caribbean New France, tied to slave systems in both regions.

Father Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, a French Jesuit traveller and historian, noted the Illinois Country’s agricultural potential, stating in his letters to the Duchess of Lesdiguieres in the 1720s that wheat “[grew up] and [ripened] as well as in France.”7 Upper Louisiana and its agricultural lands served as ghost acres for the French empire, allowing its cash crop colonies to evade the Malthusian land constraint.8 Other bits of empire also contributed to this, crafting a web of complex energy connections. The French West Indies were especially productive; by the 1770s, they were producing “17 percent more sugar, nine times more coffee, and thirty times more indigo” than British plantations in the same region.9 The slave and sugar trade brought capital to the metropole, which could then be invested in a variety of industries, including shipbuilding, textiles, metallurgy, and glassworks.10 The benefits derived from the lucrative Atlantic market were supported by Illinois Country agriculture.

Foodstuffs from the Illinois Country were the fuel for more profitable colonial machines elsewhere in the empire, notably the Caribbean and Lower Louisiana. A British official noted in 1762 that “Corn, Flour and Bread produced in Europe, are to the West Indies, by reason of its Distance, almost as if they did not exist there. […] this Fact demonstrably proves the greater Dependence of the Islands upon the [North American] Continent.”11 In other words, agricultural products from Upper Louisiana were geographically significant sources of caloric energy for cash crop plantations in the West Indies and Lower Louisiana, which in turn produced their own wealth from coerced African somatic energy. In the 1740s, the Governor of Louisiana Pierre de Vaudreuil noted that “despite the remoteness of this quarter, [the Illinois Country] was of great importance because of all the relief in flour shipped to the base of the river.”12 In the following decade, Vaudreuil reaffirmed the importance of Illinois Country food relief; increasing cultivation was at the top of his list of priorities. This was echoed by Antoine Louis Rouille, then French Minister of the Marine, who responded to Vaudreuil’s report on the colony that this “pursuit […] must always be preferred to the others.”13 Agricultural productivity in the Illinois Country mirrored the importance of the cash crop plantations it sought to support. As Caribbean and Louisianan plantations increased in size and productivity, Illinois Country agriculture had to keep pace. Farm size corresponded with this economic growth. In 1726, the average farm was 24.8 acres. By 1732, it had nearly doubled to 41.4 acres and almost tripled in 1752 to 65.9 acres.14 (See Images 2 and 3) During the same period, the ratio of enslaved people to free people in the region also increased, reflecting the growing reliance on coerced energy.

Hand-drawn map of Mississippi River. Along the west (right-hand) shore is the lay out for a village with small markings denoting each separate building.
Image 2: A plan of Kaskaskia, one of the first villages in the Illinois Country, from 1776. Note the proximity to the river to get grain to market and the predominance of agricultural land (such as the commons). Kaskaskia was one of many villages which supplied communities downriver with foodstuffs.
Source: “A Plan of Cascaskies,” from Captain Philip Pittman, The Present States of the European Settlements on the Mississippi, 1770, map, Mapping the French Empire in North America online exhibit, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, https://publications.newberry.org/smith/exhibits/fe/fe3.html.
hand-drawn map section of Mississippi River. Along the east (left-hand) shore are several details of local settlement, including forts, villages, and wind mills.
Image 3: A map of the francophone villages in the Illinois Country along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in around 1770. These villages were the centre of French agricultural production and fed much of New Orleans and France’s Caribbean colonies.
Source: Thomas Hutchins, A Plan of the Several Villages in the Illinois Country, 1778, map, Mapping the French Empire in North America online exhibit, Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, https://publications.newberry.org/smith/exhibits/fe/fe3.html.

However, slavery in the Illinois Country did not follow typical French colonial patterns. It was heavily influenced by the region’s history of pre-contact Illini slavery systems, where (most commonly) enslaved Indigenous women would be adopted into the Illini community via polygamous marriage.15 Furthermore, the history of cultural métissage via Christian mixed-race marriages blurred the lines of strict racial segregation.16 Indigenous and African enslaved people worked in the fields and the domestic sphere. White, Indigenous, and African people worked alongside one another. Nevertheless, dynamics of dehumanization remained present. Society was fundamentally “heterogeneous and inegalitarian,” echoing the troubling structures of plantation slavery down the Mississippi River and beyond.17 African and Indigenous somatic energy was seen as a natural resource to be exploited for French gain.

Though not organized in a plantation configuration, coerced somatic energy was essential to the Illinois Country’s export success.18 The area was sparsely populated, located on the edge of empire, and perpetually plagued by New France’s chronic labour shortage. Enslaved people filled this gap, performing essential labour to keep the important port city of New Orleans fed. New Orleans acted as a liminal space, connecting energy networks in the interior of North America to the Caribbean world and the metropole, and thus the remote Illinois Country to the broader French empire.19 The energy networks of the Atlantic slave trade and markets extended into the interior of North America, complicating the spiderweb of connections between ports along the coasts of the Atlantic ocean.


1. Dale W. Tomich, Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar: Martinique and the World-Economy, 1830-1848, Apple Books edition (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2016).

2. Propositions for Improving the Manufactures, Agriculture and Commerce, of Great Britain (London: W. Sandby, 1763), 127–28.

3. David J Keene, “Beyond Fur Trade: The Eighteenth Century Colonial Economy of French North America from Fort de Chartres in the Illinois Country” (PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2002), 61.

4. M. Scott Heerman, “Beyond Plantations: Indian and African Slavery in the Illinois Country, 1720–1780,” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 3 (July 3, 2017): 490.

5. Nicholas Fiori, “Plantation Energy: From Slave Labor to Machine Discipline,” American Quarterly 72, no. 3 (2020): 263.

6. Cécile Vidal, Caribbean New Orleans: Empire, Race, and the Making of a Slave Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 15.

7. Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, “Letter XXVIII: Of the Colony of the Illinois. Journey to Arkansas. Description of the Country,” dated Nov. 8 circa 1720, Letters to the Dutchess of Lediguieres; Giving an Account of a Voyage to Canada and Travels through That Vast Country, and Louisiana, to the Gulf of Mexico (Pater-Noster Row, London: R. Baldwin, 1763), 303.

8. “Ghost acres” refer to the colonized land the French empire used to produce more natural resources than their own territory would allow. They include any part of the French empire that is not part of the metropole. Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence expands on this more broadly, and was integral to the theoretical framing of this piece (Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 264). Dale Tomich’s “commodity frontiers” are another similar theoretical lens used to analyze the relationship between sugar production, industrialization, and capital in Britain  (Dale Tomich, “Commodity Frontiers, Spatial Economy, and Technological Innovation in the Caribbean Sugar Industry, 1783-1878,” in The Caribbean and the Atlantic World Ecnomy: Circuits of Trade, Money and Knowledge, 1650-1914, ed. Adrian Leonard and David Pretel (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), 185-86). This was also considered in this piece.

9. David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman, “The Importance of Slavery and the Slave Trade to Industrializing Britain,” The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 1 (2000): 130; The Comparative Importance of Our Acquisitions from France in America. With Remarks on a Pamphlet, Intitled An Examination of the Commercial Principles of the Late Negotiation in 1761. (London: J. Hinkmen, 1762), 46–47.

10. Tomich, Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar, chap. 1; Jean-Christian Tulet, “La fin de l’empire du sucre dans les îles de la Caraïbe,” Caravelle 109 (2017): paras. 1-15.

11. Comparative Importance, 32.

12. Quoted in Heerman, “Beyond Plantations,” 496.

13. Quoted in Keene, “Beyond Fur Trade,” 41.

14. Cécile Vidal, “Africains et Européens au pays des Illinois durant la période française (1699-1765),” French Colonial History 3, no. 1 (2003): 55.

15. Robert Michael Morrissey, Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country, Kobo edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), chap. 1; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 168; Heerman, “Beyond Plantations,” 490–91.

16. Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana, Kobo edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792, Kobo edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

17. Vidal, “Africain et Européens,” 58 my translation.

18. The main crops grown in the Illinois Country, wheat and corn, did not require the same constant tending of traditional cash crops, and thus did not lend themselves to plantation organization. Rather, enslaved labour was more diverse, organized around periods of intense agricultural labour and periods of respite (Heerman 2017, 493-94; Vidal 2003, 54). Enslaved peoples often performed similar work as pack animals – for example, a soldier from the 1740s noted that “a Plow [was] seldom used” for soft ground was “dug by the Slaves” (The Present State of the Country and Inhabitants, Europeans and Indians, of Louisiana, on the North Continent of America (London: J. Millan, 1744), 19-20).

19. Vidal, Caribbean New Orleans, 8; 14–16.

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Emma Bock

Emma Bock is a history MA student at Queen's University. Her work is interested in eighteenth-century New France, the Illinois Country, colonial women, and the legacies of colonialism in North America.

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