This Fourth of July holiday consider taking in some Revolutionary War history without ever leaving the Midwest.
Get off the beat track and head to Kaskaskia, Ill. - part of the lesser known western front in our fight for freedom against British rule and home to the Liberty Bell of the West.
Cast in France in 1741, the so-called Liberty Bell of the West is older than its more well known counterpart in Philadelphia which was cast in 1751.
The 650-pound Kaskaskia bell was a gift to The Mission of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and the town's citizens from King Louis XV of France, arriving in 1743 after being shipped from France to New Orleans and being pulled up the Mississippi River by ropes on a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed bateau boat.
Thirty-five years later, the Kaskaskia bell got its name following an American win against the British at nearby Fort Gage.
During the Revolutionary War, George Rodgers Clark - brother of William Clark of later Lewis and Clark fame - raised a force of men called the "Long Knives" and set out for Kaskaskia to try to take control of the Illinois Country and Mississippi River.
Rather than taking the usual route down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi, Clark marched his expedition overland through the wilderness to try to take the British by surprise. On June 24, 1778, the contingent set out from Fort Massac near modern day Metropolis, Ill. on the Kentucky border.
A few days in, their guide claimed not to remember the way, but Clark reportedly refreshed his memory by threatening to kill him.
That would be the only stumbling block on the trip.
Reaching the outskirts of Kaskaskia on the night of July 4, the 175 Virginians and Kentuckians took the British completely by surprise, securing the town and capturing Fort Gage without firing a shot.
The liberated residents of Kaskaskia joyfully celebrated by ringing the bell in the local parish church. Clark and his "Long Knives" went on to quickly take the nearby towns of Prairie du Rocher and Cahokia, and in 1779 used it as a jumping off place to capture Vincennes, Ind. from the British.
The bell, inscribed in French to the Church of Illinois by gift of the King across the water and adorned with fleur de lis and the royal lilies of France, became known as the Liberty Bell of the West.
The bell now resides in a brick building at the Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site built by the state of Illinois in Kaskaskia in 1948. It is located next to the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Visitors used to be able to touch and ring the bell, but it can now only be viewed from the doorway with a brief audio program offering a history of the bell.
Page 2 of 3 - During the flood of 1973, the bell was washed from its stand, widening a hairline crack discovered in 1948. The bell continued to be rung every 4th of July until the crack was widened further during the flood of 1993 when it was washed from its stand a second time. The bell is no longer rung for fear of further damage, but Independence Day ceremonies are still conducted at the site.
Clark and his Long Knives retained control of Kaskaskia. Following the Revolutionary War, it became part of the U.S. The famous Lewis and Clark expedition stopped at the town in 1803 and recruited skilled men in the area to take part in the journey of discovery from 1804-1806.
Originally little more than a post for French traders when it was established in 1703, Kaskaskia grew into a significant port city and was the territorial capitol of Illinois before becoming the first state capital in 1818.
But when the capital was moved to a more central location in the state in 1819, the town's fortunes began to reverse.
Flooding in 1844 significantly damaged much of the town. Then during flooding in 1881, the mighty Mississippi River changed its course, shifting to the east and overtaking the nearby Kaskaskia River's smaller channel.
In addition to nearly wiping out the once thriving community, the change in the Mississippi left Kaskaskia on the Missouri side of the river.
An act of Congress amended the border at this location to allow the former capital city to stay in Illinois.
One of two spots in Illinois located west of the Mississippi River, Kaskaskia is only accessible through Missouri.
Located just a short drive south of Ste. Genevieve on Hwy. 61 and reached on Route 15 through St. Mary, Mo., the community has shrunk to become one of the smallest villages in Illinois with a population of just 14 residents.
This is no tourist trap. Besides the Kaskaskia Bell State Historic Site, you can see a rebuilt Church of the Immaculate Conception, the original Randolph County Courthouse that was built in 1795 and a few old residences scattered throughout mostly empty grass-covered blocks.
In addition to cutting Kaskaskia off from Illinois, the shift of the river increased its separation from two other sites of interest that were once just over the Kaskaskia River.
Take the nearest bridge across the Mississippi River to Illinois located to the southeast of Kaskaskia on Highway 51 from Claryville, Mo. to Chester, Ill.
Incidentally, a 6-foot bronze Popeye statute near the Chester Bridge marks the city as the birthplace and early home of the cartoon's creator, Elzie C. Segar.
Go back to the northwest to Fort Kaskaskia State Park and the Pierre Menard Home on Kaskaskia Rd. or the Great River Rd., Route 3.
Page 3 of 3 - Originally built by the French in 1759 to protect the town of Kaskaskia and rebuilt by Americans in 1803, all that remains of Fort Kaskaskia today are a dry moat and earthenworks. Garrison Hill Cemetery in the park dates back to the 1800s. A grassy bluff overlook provides a sweeping view of the Mississippi River and Kaskaskia Island.
A footpath leads to the Pierre Menard Home State Historic Site at the bottom of the bluff.
Built in 1815, the Pierre Menard Home is one of the best examples of French-Creole architecture surviving in Illinois. In addition to the home, the grounds include an old springhouse and smokehouse.