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Historic Illinois



WHEN the first white man, floating down the bosom of the majestic Mississippi, finally landed and placed adventurous foot upon the soil of Illinois, this was entirely the country of the Indian. In its virgin wilderness beauty, it would be difficult to imagine a more magnificent domain. Nature had done her part, and had been most prodigal with her bounties. No dark and brooding forest shrouded the landscape, as was the case farther eastward; no forbidding mountain-masses frowningly denied easy access. Here the green and brown prairies smiled cheerfully back to the sun, beautified by countless wild flowers, with scattered groves dotting their wide expanse, and everywhere diversified by sparkling water-courses.

Illinois River Valley near Peoria - Scene of many Indian conflicts Outwardly, it was as the Garden of Eden, a vast park designed by the one Great Architect, and beautified by His genius. A magnificent river swept majestically along its western boundary, while one scarcely less important divided it in twain. Yet, fair as was the prospect from the summit of any hilltop, it was the rough beauty of untamed wilderness. Nothing disturbed the dead monotony of hill and dale, plain and woodland, excepting a few scattered and dirty villages with their savage inmates.
The unbroken prairies were browsed over by countless herds of buffalo, while in the dark coverts of the woods bears lurked in search of prey, and the timid deer skulked, affrighted by the slightest sound.
From village to village ran snake-like trails, along which the solitary hunter stole like a shadow, or some fierce party of bedecked warriors passed swiftly in search of their enemies. It was indeed a scene of nature, untouched as yet by the artificial restraints of civilization, wild, lonely, savagely beautiful, but in no sense was it anywhere a scene of prosperity or peace.

Want and suffering were constant visitants in these black wigwams - improvidence ever stalking a grim skeleton through months of cruel Winter, - while death and torture haunted each mile of the dim trails. It was everywhere war, cruel, devastating, cowardly, - war in which men, women, and children perished like flies beneath the war-club and the tomahawk. What races may have dominated these plains and valleys - whence they came, whither they passed away - in those lost centuries, is today beyond conjecture. But we know enough to write with calm certainty that whatever may have been the names of the tribes and peoples holding this fair hunting-ground, they accomplished it through force of arms, and were, each in turn, compelled to yield it up unto a stronger. There was no cessation in the struggle; it had been centuries long, and would continue while savagery held mastership. When the first white explorer came, drifting along those inviting water-ways from the north and east, he discovered here people of the Algonquin race. "They were of a great family of savages," comments Parkman, "at one time occupying nearly all of the United States between the thirty-fifth and sixtieth parallels of latitude, and the sixtieth and one hundred and fifth meridians of longitude. Those were Algonquins whom Cartier found on the banks of the St. Lawrence, whom the English discovered hunting and fishing along the Atlantic coast from Maine to the Carolinas."

And they were men of this same lineage who first greeted the Jesuit Marquette upon the banks of this far-off Mississippi. How they originally came here we may never know with certainty, nor what other people they dispossessed in order to gain these hunting-grounds. Yet, there they were in that year of earliest white discovery, 1673, squeezed in between the encroaching
Sioux upon the west, and the raiding Iroquois upon the east, barely holding their own in the unequal struggle, their day of exile already near at hand.

To Marquette these first Indians with whom he met, near the mouth of the Des Moines River, spoke of themselves as the "Illini."

meeting of Marquette with the Illini Indians

Literally interpreted, this simply meant that they were men, the term being used to distinguish themselves from their rapacious enemies, the Iroquois, whom they were accustomed to designate as beasts. Yet from that hour this particular confederation of Algonquin tribes has been known in both French and English records as the Illinois. They had long been, and were still, a powerful people, the five tribes composing the confederation being the Tamaroas, Michigamies, Kaskaskias, Cahokias, and Peorias. These tribes, thus loosely banded together in an Indian alliance for purposes of defence, claimed and yet held for their special hunting-grounds all that country bounded on the east by the ridge dividing the waters flowing into the Illinois from those flowing into the Wabash, between the head waters of Saline Creek, and extending as far north as the debatable ground between them and their nearest encroaching neighbors, the Sacs and Foxes, Winnebagoes, and Kickapoos. In other words, their territory may roughly be said to have extended from a line drawn directly southward from the junction of the Des Plaines River with the Illinois to a point on the Ohio about where Golconda now stands, extending westward to the banks of the Mississippi, and northwestward as far as Rock River. Their favorite and most populous villages were situated upon the Illinois, the Des Plaines, and the lower Kankakee. Marquette describes their principal town as being situated upon the bank of the Illinois River, seven miles below the present city of Ottawa. It was then called Kaskaskia, and contained seventy-four lodges. In 1679, six years later, according to the reports of Hennepin, it had four hundred and sixty lodges, with a total population of from six to eight thousand. These lodges extended along the river for fully a mile, and the Indians cultivated the adjacent meadows, raising crops of pumpkins, beans, and Indian corn. Father Rasles mentions ten or twelve other smaller villages, scattered throughout their territory. The exact position of very few of these can be traced, although it is known that in 1680 there were Illinois villages five miles below the site of Peoria, and others very nearly where the city of Beardstown now stands. In 1697 there was one in the immediate neighborhood of Spring Bay, and a very old Indian village, probably of this same people, stood slightly south of the present town of Toulon, in Stark County. If these latter were the Illinois, then this spot must have marked the extreme limit of their permanent residence, for Henry and Bureau Counties were, even at this time, hunted over by bands of Kickapoo warriors.

The remaining portions of the State were at this date occupied by the following Indian tribes: East of the central dividing ridge, or water-shed, were three branches of the
Miami confederation, the Weamiamies having their hunting-grounds in Cook and Lake Counties, the Miamis proper, the country lying closely along the Indiana state line north of Danville, and the Piankishaws the country extending from that point south to the Ohio. This latter tribe was the only one of the three to retain possession for any length of time, the others being early forced eastward by the encroachments of other tribes from the north. The Kickapoos were in the extreme northwest, their southern limit being Rock River. Just across the Wisconsin line, in the country adjacent to the great lake, were scattered the Pottawattomies, who were slowly but resistlessly pressing southward.

It is hard to conceive of a more pathetic story than that revealed in the fate of the Illinois. Less than a year after La Salle first visited them, the
Iroquois made a sudden raid into their territory, captured and burned their principal town near Ottawa, and drove the confederated tribes down the river as far as the Mississippi. Here the Tamaroas were overtaken by their merciless pursuers, a large number of warriors killed, and seven hundred of their women and children taken prisoners. Many of these were burned at the stake, or cruelly tortured, until, their fierce passions satiated, the invading savages finally returned eastward, bearing with them into slavery those who remained alive. With this withdrawal of the enemy the survivors of the scattered and disheartened Illinois tribes began slowly drifting back to the neighborhood of their old home, and, uniting together, partially rebuilt their destroyed town. In 1682, when La Salle collected his Indian colony about Fort St. Louis (Starved Rock ), the Illinois furnished twelve hundred of the total of thirty-eight hundred warriors thus banded together in defence under French protection.

Their safety, which then seemed assured, was, however, but short-lived. La Salle's purposes of exploration, his lack of available men for suitable garrisons, and the jealousies in Canada which tied his hands, resulted in the necessity of his finally leaving these Indians to their fate. Nor was it long in coming. The savage
Iroquois, busied with war in their own territory, did not return in force to complete their bloody work on the Illinois prairies, but other enemies were numerous, aggressive, and scarcely less cruel. The Sacs and Foxes from west of the Mississippi, the Kickapoos from beyond Rock River, and the Pottawattomies from Southern Wisconsin, all alike eager to gain possession of these superb hunting-grounds, swarmed down in merciless raids upon the dispirited remnant of the Illinois. Some resistance was attempted, and the Foxes were defeated in two severe battles at Starved Rock and near the Peoria Lake, losing more than a hundred warriors. But the Illinois tribesmen were not the fighters they had once been, and little by little they abandoned the country. Peoria, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia became centres for the tribes bearing these names. The Tamaroas amalgamated themselves with the Kaskaskias, while the Michigamies located near Fort Chartres. By the year 1736 these were nearly all gathered in the immediate vicinity of the little French settlements on the Mississippi, and numbered in warriors as follows: Michigamies, 250; Kaskaskias, 100; Peorias, 50; Cahokias and Tamaroas, 200, - making a total of 600 fighting men. Considering that only fifty-seven years before this same people numbered twelve thousand souls, with large prosperous villages and a hunting-ground covering fully two-thirds of the State, the suffering and barbarity of those early times can be somewhat comprehended.

Nor were their misfortunes as yet at an end. In common with all other western tribes, they became involved in the conspiracy of Pontiac, but apparently were unwilling to take active part in the field. When that great chief visited them in 1764 to make his final appeal, their zeal did not meet his desires, and he told them that if they hesitated longer he "would consume their tribes as fire consumes the dry grass on the prairies." After Pontiac's final defeat, he fled for refuge to Illinois, and was killed by an Indian at Cahokia. This act was laid to that tribe,- whether rightfully or wrongfully has never been established, - and greatly angered the Indian nations who for so long had been loyal to the great chieftain. They swarmed down from the north and the east, eager to avenge his death, and almost annihilated the tribes of the Illinois. Tradition states that a band of these fugitives, seeking to escape the general slaughter, finally took refuge on the summit of that high rock which had been the site of Fort St. Louis.

Starved Rock There they were besieged by an overwhelming force of Pottawattomies, which the great strength of this natural fortress enabled them easily to keep at bay. But hunger and thirst united to defeat them, when the savage foe could not. Their small quantity of provisions quickly failed, and their supply of water was stopped by the enemy severing the cords attached to the vessels with which they elevated it from the river below. Thus surrounded by relentless avengers, they took one last lingering look at their beautiful hunting-grounds, spread out like a panorama along the gently rolling river beneath them, and then with true Indian fortitude laid themselves down, and expired without a sigh or a tear.
Their tragic fate has given to this lofty citadel the name of Starved Rock; many years afterward their bones were seen whitening on its summit.

Tamaroas, while not entirely exterminated, lost their identity as a separate tribe, in a fierce battle with the Shawnees fought near the eastern limits of Randolph County; and at the conclusion of this avenging war the entire confederation of the Illinois had been reduced to two tribes, the Kaskaskias and Peorias.
Together they could muster but a hundred and fifty warriors. In the year 1850, when the remnant was removed from its old home to the Indian Territory, only eighty-four of the race were found.

Let us turn again to the map, and note those changes which less than a hundred years of savage, relentless war had wrought in this Indian-haunted land. It is 1765; the wasted remnant of the once powerful Illinois confederacy are now huddled, fear-stricken, and broken of spirit, about the French settlements on the Mississippi, occupying as a hunting-ground the present counties of Madison, St. Clair, Monroe, and Randolph. The Piankishaws have meanwhile spread their boundaries slightly toward the west, having obtained control of the Mississippi, south of the Randolph County line, but the warlike Shawnees, pouring in from the east, have won from them a considerable strip along the Wabash and Ohio, probably most of White, Hamilton, Gallatin, Pope, Saline, and Massac Counties. Farther north, even a greater change is noticeable. The northern Miamis have been driven westward beyond the State limits by an inroad of Pottawattomies from Wisconsin. These latter have swept entirely around the head of the great lake, and have spread out across the prairies as far south as the Kankakee. Pressed forward by the invading Sacs and Foxes, the Kickapoos have crossed Rock River and taken possession of the deserted lands of the Illinois, ranging throughout the entire central portion of the State. Close behind them the Sacs and Foxes have pushed their way, until they now control all that country lying west and north of the Illinois River.

As late as 1812 these same Indian tribes divided the State between them, but the boundaries of their possessions had changed. The
Piankishaws had been pressed eastward, merely retaining a small section along the upper waters of the Wabash. The Pottawattomies had driven the Kickapoos yet farther south, taking to themselves the central portion of the State, and compelling the Sacs and Foxes to retire north of Rock River. Here these latter were somewhat closely hemmed in by an entering wedge of Winnebagoes from Wisconsin. The Kickapoo hunting-grounds were nearly as extensive as before, but had been changed to the southwestern counties of the State. A brief sketch of these tribes so intimately connected with the early history of Illinois will be found full of interest, and of the unspeakable pathos of Indian life.

More than all the others combined, the
Kickapoos served to retard the advance of white settlement. From the earliest days, their bitter hatred of the encroaching race was implacable, and they were ever a powerful and fierce tribe. Their historical records run back to the first occupation of the St. Lawrence valley by the French. Champlain found them along the shores of Lake Huron. From that early day they proved an untractable people, never forming any lasting alliance with either the French or the English. They reached Rock River from the north about the same time as the first white explorers of Illinois, and from that date remained prominent in all the savage warfare incident to early colonization, roaming at different periods over nearly every county within the present limits of the State. They were more civilized, industrious, energetic, and cleanly than their neighbors, but equally cruel, treacherous, and unforgiving. They were always among the first to commence war, the last to submit and enter into treaties. They were in the field against Generals Harmar, St. Clair, and Wayne, and were leaders in all the bloody charges at Tippecanoe. For many years they harassed the exposed settlements, and were long the terror of the Illinois frontier. When finally removed from the limits of the State, they yet retained their old animosity against Americans, retiring to Texas, then a province of Mexico, rather than remain on United States territory. It is impossible to estimate the number of warriors composing this tribe in the days of their power, but it is evident from the country controlled by them, as well as the number and importance of their villages, that they must have formed a large fighting force. Their principal towns were located on Kickapoo Creek, and at Elkhart Grove.

Piankishaws, while never making any great impress on early Illinois history, yet occupied for some years much of its territory. They held membership in the Miami confederation, and hunted over that country lying to the westward of the Wabash, as far as the dividing ridge, and at one time attained to the Mississippi. They were more largely represented in La Salle's colony at Fort St. Louis than any other one tribe, and later took active part in the conspiracy of Pontiac. Within the knowledge of white men, they held place on Illinois soil for two hundred years. Like the other original Illinois tribes, they were constantly harassed by the raiding Iroquois, and finally were crushed between the invading Kickapoos and Shawnees, and thus forced across the State boundaries. They were but seldom mentioned in the early records as being connected with raids on the white settlers. When removed to Indian Territory in 1850, their pitiful remnant numbered but one hundred and seven persons.

Mascoutins were a tribe holding close relationship to the Illinois confederation, and are believed to have occupied some portion of the State for brief intervals. Marquette met them in 1673, near the portage of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers; and Marest states that in 1712 they had settlements on the Wabash, and later ranged over the prairies between there and the Illinois River. They became associated, and finally absorbed, with both the Foxes and the Kickapoos, whom they resembled in deceit and treachery. Charlevoix states that they, with the Kickapoos and Foxes as confederates, formed a plot against the French, but before it could be consummated were surprised by a band of Ottawas and Pottawattomies, with the result that one hundred and fifty of them were destroyed. After the surrender of the French possessions to the English, Colonel Croghan was sent to conciliate the western tribes. Having descended the Ohio to a point a little below Shawneetown, the Mascoutins, together with some Kickapoos, attacked and made him and his men prisoners. Under the name of Meadow Indians, they were mentioned by General Clark, whom they endeavored to surprise by treachery in 1778.

Sacs and Foxes, except in raiding parties, were probably never south of the Illinois River, nor did they for any considerable length of time exercise control over the country lying between that river and the Rock. But throughout the entire northwestern portion of the State they enter largely into its early history, while during the Black Hawk War their fame became national. While originally composing two separate tribes, they had, by long residence together and intermarriage, become practically one people. Both tribes came from the St. Lawrence, in the neighborhood of Quebec and Montreal, the Foxes being the earliest to emigrate, making a new home for themselves on the banks of that river in Wisconsin which has ever since borne their name. A bloody and disastrous war with the Iroquois soon induced the Sacs to join them, when, for mutual protection against the surrounding savages, they united as one nation. Moving steadily southward, they finally gained foothold in northwestern Illinois by driving out the Sauteurs, a branch of the Chippewas, who then held possession. It is said that in the course of this migration they also had a severe battle with the Mascoutins, nearly opposite the mouth of the Iowa River, in which the latter were not only defeated but almost exterminated. Having thus conquered the country, they established their chief village near the mouth of Rock River, occupying a high bluff overlooking the present town of Milan, now known as Black Hawk's Watch Tower. They also had several smaller villages on the west side of the Mississippi. They were almost constantly at war, both offensive and defensive, with the Sioux, Pawnees, Osages, and Kickapoos, nor in any of these fierce and savage conflicts were they found deficient in courage. In the struggle of 1812 they took active part upon the British side and rendered good service, defeating and driving back every American expedition despatched into their country. Later, in the Black Hawk War, although defeated and literally cut to pieces by overwhelming numbers, their old reputation as hard fighters was abundantly sustained. In the year 1805 their numbers were given as follows: Sacs, 2,850, of whom 700 were warriors; Foxes, 1,750, of whom 400 were warriors. In 1825 the total number in the two tribes was reported at 4,600. When finally transferred to Indian Territory, they numbered only 1,600. These tribes possessed one very peculiar custom, unnoted anywhere else in Indian life. Each male child at birth was marked with either black or white paint, the mother being extremely careful to apply the two colors alternately, so that each family, and the entire nation, might be thus divided into two nearly equal classes, the blacks and the whites. The object of these distinctive marks, which were retained through life, was to keep alive a constant spirit of emulation in the tribe. In their games, hunts, and public ceremonies, the blacks were always the competitors of the whites, while in war each party was ambitious to take more scalps than the other.

Pottawattomies were for a long period a power in the Illinois country. They originally fought their way in along the shore of Lake Michigan, and then, battling constantly, drove back the struggling Kickapoos beyond the Sangamon, and forced the fierce Sacs and Foxes to retire behind the Rock, while they promptly annexed all the hunting-grounds lying between. On the earlier French maps the principal village of this people was situated at the mouth of the St. Joseph River, in Michigan. Here for more than half a century Jesuit priests labored with them, but apparently to little avail. During Pontiac's War, disguising their object under a mask of friendship, they attacked the small English garrison stationed there, and killed all but three men. In Illinois, some years later, they were the principal participants in the massacre at Fort Dearborn, one of the most atrocious acts of treachery in the annals of the Northwest. Portions of both the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes were closely associated with them during their career in Illinois. The Sauteurs, of the Chippewa branch, at an early date dwelt along the eastern bank of the Mississippi, having villages at Rock Island and Quincy. Driven out by the Sacs and Foxes, they crossed the river, and built a new town on the present site of Davenport. The Pottawattomies were among the most energetic and powerful of the Indian tribes of the Northwest, and fought with savage ferocity in all the wars along the border. At Detroit, Mackinaw, and other British posts, in Pontiac's time, they were without rivals in the work of carnage and death. They were the last native tribe to take their departure from Illinois, lingering about Chicago until 1835. In 1850, in the Indian Territory, they numbered 1,500, many of them prosperous, and all seemingly more ambitious than Indians of other stock.

Two other tribes require consideration in this connection. For some years a fragment of the
Shawnee nation dwelt in the southeastern portion of the State, their principal village being Shawneetown, in Gallatin County, on the Ohio River. They were a bold, roving, adventurous people, who had fought their way eastward from the Atlantic coast. Constantly in broils, their stay in Illinois was a bloody one. During the French and Indian War, they obtained arms from the French, and overran the frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia. So atrocious had been their conduct, that when the war was over they supposed themselves excluded from the general amnesty, and prepared to murder their prisoners and fight to the death. Just before the coming of Clark, they exterminated the Tamaroas and moved eastward out of the State. They fought battles with the Kickapoos and the Piankishaws in order to hold their territory.

Winnebagoes were another tribe who gained a foothold in Illinois, pushing down in wedge-like form from Wisconsin between the Sacs and Foxes and Pottawattomies, occupying the county which now bears their name and some territory adjacent to it upon the east. They took part, although in a small way, in the harassing of early American settlements, even assailing a steamboat on the Mississippi as late as 1827. It is supposed that they had formerly lived in Illinois, their traditions stating that their ancestors had built a fort there, which some authorities connect with the archaeological remains of an ancient work found on Rock River.

This, in brief, is the Indian record of Illinois since the coming of white men. Similar scenes of savage war and desolation, of exterminated tribes and decimated nations, undoubtedly extend back for hundreds of years previous. For many centuries Illinois had been a battle-ground, a bone of contention among the red men. Hardly a foot of its territory but has witnessed scenes of savage atrocity before which the civilized mind shrinks in horror. From the coming of the first French man, it yet continued a place of struggle for nearly 300 years, until the Indian was finally banished beyond its borders. Red against red, red against white, and white against white battle almost unceasingly, until scarcely a county but has its memory, scarcely a spot remains without its associations of war. The prairies have drunk of human blood and the streams have run red with sacrifice.

"Historic Illinois, The Romance of the Earlier Days" by Randall Parish, ©1907
Transcribed by K. Torp
©2006, Genealogy Trails

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©2006 Kim Torp
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