Illinois, Pre-U.S. History

Early Indian Tribes
The Indian tribes dwelling in what was to become Illinois had communal codes of conduct and simply structured judicial systems. Occurrences of misconduct were ruled upon by representatives of the extended family, the clan, tribe or nation, depending upon the nature and extent of the violation. All decisions were made by these leaders, and all decisions had to be unanimous. There was no court of appeal.

European Settlers
European settlers began to penetrate into the area, drawn initially by the fur trade. Spain first claimed the territory, but the French were the first settlers. In 1699 the French established the Commandery of Illinois, and placed the area under the control of the Governor of Louisiana. The Commandant of Illinois appointed town commandants, or judges, for each settlement. These officials tried minor cases; the Commandant of Illinois had jurisdiction over major civil and criminal cases. In 1722 a Provincial Council was established to exercise original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases. This is the first record of any court in Illinois.

In the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded all land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes to Great Britain. Unsuccessful attempts to impose English common law on the French inhabitants led to the resumption of the "Custom of Paris. Each town had a board of arbitrators to hear civil cases and a judge, who heard all other cases. Friction between the French settlers and the English officials interfered with the administration of justice for some time after 1763.

Colonial Times
Colonel George Rogers Clark claimed the Illinois Territory as part of the Republic of Virginia in 1778. 7 men were elected as judges in each settlement. A majority of 4 was needed for a decision. Colonel Clark served as the Court of Appeal. In 1779, John Todd was appointed County Lieutenant for Illinois. He reorganized the courts into 3 districts with the seats of government in Kaskaskia (Randolph County), Cahokia (near St. Louis) and Vincennes (now in Indiana). Each district had 6 elected judges, who met monthly, or as needed. English common law was growing in influence. For example, jury trials and imprisonment for debt became common. The courts of Illinois County functioned with the same jurisdiction as the courts of any Virginia county.