Native Americans of Illinois

[NOTE: All original wording and terminology of the original sources have been retained.]

1623 Map showing location of Tribes

Newspaper Stories


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ILLINOIS INDIANS - a confederation belonging to the Algonquin family and embracing five tribes, viz.: The Cahokias, Kaskaskias, Mitchagamies, Peorias and Tamaroas.

They early occupied Illinois, with adjacent portions of Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. The name is derived from Illini, "man," the Indian plural "ek" being changed by the French to "ois." They were intensely warlike, being almost constantly in conflict with the Winnebagoes, the Iroquois, Sioux and other tribes. They were migratory and depended for subsistence largely on the summer and winter hunts. They dwelt in rudely constructed cabins, each accommodating about eight families.
They were always faithful allies of the French, whom they heartily welcome in 1673. French missionaries labored earnestly among them - notably Fathers Marquette, Allouez and Gravier - who reduced their language to grammatical rules.

Their most distinguished Chief was
Chicagou, who was sent to France, where he was welcomed with the honors accorded to a foreign prince. In their wars with the Foxes, from 1712 to 1719, they suffered severely, their numbers being reduced to 3,000 souls. ..... After taking part with the Miamis in a war against the United States, they participated in the treaties of Greenville and Vincennes, and were gradually removed farther and farther toward the West, the small remnant of about 175 being at present (1896) on the Quapaw reservation in Indian Territory. [pg. 293, "Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois", 1901]

Chief Chicago

The Illinois Indians.......
written for Genealogy Trails by Mark Walczynski

The Illinois Indians were an alliance of native Indian groups or sub-tribes who shared the same language, customs, culture, and who inter-married. Some of the larger and better known sub-tribes included the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Tamaroa, Moingwena, and Michigamea. Some of the lesser known were the Coiracoentanon, Chinko, Chepoussa, Espeminkia, and Tapouaro. Early French missionaries reported that the Illinois called themselves, "In8ca" (Inoca).

The Illinois Indians had a cyclical existence that revolved around hunting and gathering and agriculture. In the spring, each Illinois sub-tribe moved to its particular large summer agricultural village where corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins were planted. After the spring crop was established, the next noteworthy event was the summer buffalo hunt that usually lasted about four or five weeks and, like most other aspects of Illinois life, involved the participation of everyone in the village. As autumn approached, the dry corn was stripped from the stalks and stored in pits. It was later consumed as food and it was used as seed for the following year's crop. Then, usually by mid- to late September, the village dispersed into small clan groups for the winter hunt. When the hunt was over each sub-tribe returned to their summer agricultural village and the cycle began anew.

The family unit was the foundation of the Illinois village and every member regardless of age, sex, or talent did his or her part to ensure the survival of the group. Men were hunters and warriors while women did most of the family domestic work. Grandparents were teachers whose lifelong learning experiences were passed on to the next generation. Children played a role in family survival by collecting firewood and by doing other menial tasks. Adolescence was a time in which Illinois boys and girls learned skills that would make them capable adults.

Each Illinois Indian belonged to a kinship or blood division called a clan. Each clan was represented by a specific totem or symbol, like the otter, deer, or other animal. Certain clans had particular roles within Illinois villages. Some clans provided village chiefs while others provided representatives or shamans. Clans were considered family or bloodline divisions. Members of one clan could only marry members of other clans. The clan system prevented intermarriage, and it provided a particular identity to each group. It was also helped to form and keep alliances and friendships among certain clans.

The Illinois had a system of government based on consensus and council. The village civil chief was a position of leadership that practiced facilitation and cooperation between individuals and groups in the village that resulted in voluntary compliance. Some civil chiefs had influence and jurisdiction over several villages and among several sub-tribes. Other sub-chiefs had influence only in one village. Even though the civil chief's position was hereditary, he still had to demonstrate his leadership skills in hunting as he oversaw and conducted the village buffalo hunts each summer. Illinois civil chiefs and their counterparts, the village council and elders, made decisions as a group for the benefit of the group.

The civil chief was distinguished from the war chief who was a proven leader who had demonstrated his warrior prowess many times. The war chief's responsibilities were great. He was personally accountable for the safety of every warrior under his charge and was sometimes required to make restitution to a slain warrior's family. At the same time the decision whether or not to join the war party was up to the individual. An Illinois man usually joined a war party to address perceived wrongs or to retaliate against an enemy. Except during times of attack, the potential volunteer was persuaded to join a war party by the persuasion of the war-chief, not by coercion.

Throughout their history the Illinois Indians fought with other tribes including the Winnebago, Sioux, Iroquois, Fox and others. Although these hostilities began with small skirmishes, they intensified with time and technology. Before Illinois warriors took the offensive against an enemy, a war-party was formed by a war chief. The predominant tactic used by Illinois warriors was surprise. There was little or no regard to age or sex of the victims. When practical the Illinois preferred to return with a prisoner who was then adopted into the tribe, kept as a slave, or tortured to death. When a war party returned home, the villagers followed a specific protocol. If the mission was successful, there was celebration and feasting. If the warriors met defeat, the village mourned.

It should be noted that Illinois villages were long and narrow and were spread along the banks of a waterway like the Mississippi, Kaskaskia, or Illinois River. They seldom if ever had walls, palisades, or defensive fortifications. When war or attack was imminent the Illinois either consolidated their sub-tribes at one village, they relocated to a new site, they attacked the threat, or in later years, they moved next to a European fort.

Illinois villages were nearly always located along a river or other body of water. To travel these streams the Illinois constructed dugout canoes, known as mihsoora, from the trunks of cottonwood trees. These dugouts, later known to the French as "pirogues," were carved from a tree trunk that was continuously burned and scraped on one side until it was deep enough and stable enough for passengers. Some dug-outs were very large and could carry forty to fifty people.

In the 1660's and 1670's, the Illinois lived in villages that were scattered throughout today's state of Illinois. Some villages were near today's Starved Rock State Park and near the modern-day cities of Peoria, and East St. Louis. During this same period, some Illinois camps were located along the upper Fox River in today's Wisconsin and near the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers in Iowa. In 1666 the Illinois sent a delegation to trade with the Ottawa tribes at La Pointe, a place were Native American bands concentrated in large numbers for safety against Iroquois war parties located on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior near today's Ashland, Wisconsin. During this visit, French Jesuit missionary Claude-Jean Allouez met members of this delegation. This encounter was the first known meeting between the French and the Illinois.

In 1691 the Illinois sub-tribes who lived in the Upper Illinois Valley moved to Lake Peoria. By 1703 nearly all Illinois sub-tribes lived in camps along the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois. Except for an eight year period between 1722 and 1730, the Peoria were only Illinois sub-tribe that lived on the Illinois River. By 1763 the Peoria left the Illinois Valley forever and settled in camps along the Mississippi.

Later reports of the alleged destruction of the Illinois Indians after the murder of Ottawa war chief Pontiac in 1769 are without basis or foundation. The historical record shows that the Illinois Indians sold land to a British firm in 1773, allied with George Rogers Clark during the American Revolution in 1778, and negotiated treaties with the United States Government in 1803, 1818, and 1832. Experiencing a cumulative and significant population decline during the previous century, the few Illinois sub-tribes that remained in 1832 merged with the larger Peoria. Following the dictates of the 1832 Treaty of Castor Hill, the Peoria group left Illinois and settled in today's Kansas. In 1854 the Wea and Piankashaw, Miami Indian sub-tribes, merged with the Peoria and became the Consolidated Peoria Tribe. In 1868 the Consolidated Peorias moved to northeast Oklahoma and became the Peoria Indian Tribe of Oklahoma. They maintain tribal headquarters there today. Visit their website at

- Alvord, Clarence and Clarence Carter (eds.), "The New Regime 1765-1767" Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, vol. XI, (Springfield 1916).
- Alvord, Clarence and Clarence Carter (eds.), "Trade and Politics 1767-1769," Collections of the Illinois Historical Library, vol. XVI, British Series vol. 3, (1921, Springfield, Illinois).
- Hauser, Raymond E. An Ethnohistory of the Illinois Indian Tribe, Doctoral dissertation to (Northern Illinois University, 1973).
- Pease, Theodore C. and Ernestine Jenison, "Illinois on the Eve of the Seven Years War 1747-1755," in Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, French Series, vol. III (Springfield, 1940).
- Pease, Theodore Calvin and Raymond C. Werner, "The French Foundations," Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library Volume XXIII, French Series, Volume I (Springfield, Illinois, 1934).
- Thwaites, Reuben G. (ed) Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610-1791, (Cleveland, 1901)
- Thwaites, Reuben G. (ed.) Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. XVII (Madison, Wisconsin, 1906).
- Valley, Dorris, Mary Lembcke (eds.) The Peoria: A History of the Peoria Indian Tribe of Oklahoma (USA 1991).
- Zitomersky, Joseph, French Americans-Native Americans in Eighteenth Century French Louisiana, (Lund University, 1994).

SAUGANASH - the Indian name of a half-breed known as Capt. Billy Caldwell, the son of a British officer and a Pottawatomie woman, born in Canada about 1780; received an education from the Jesuits at Detroit, and was able to speak and write English and French, besides several Indian dialects; was a friend of Tecumseh's and, during the latter part of his life,a devoted friend of the whites. He took up his residence in Chicago about 1820, and in 1826, was a Justice of the Peace, while nominally a subject of Great Britain and a Chief of the Ottawas and Pottawatomies. In 1828, the Government, in consideration of his services, built for him the first frame house ever erected in Chicago, which he occupied until his departure with his tribe for Council Bluffs in 1836, By a treaty, made Jan. 2, 1830, reservations were granted by the Government to Sauganash, Shabona and other friendly Indians and 1,240 acres on the North Branch of Chicago River set apart for Caldwell, which he sold before leaving the country. Died, at Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sept. 28, 1841. ["Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois", 1901.]

The Sacs or Saukies, inhabit the country bordering on Sand Bay and Rocky riversóthey have three villages. A part of this tribe reside on the west side of the Mississippi. Pike give the total number of souls at 2,850. Four miles below Sand Bay, the U. S. had an agricultural establishment, under the direction of a Mr. Ewing. It did not succeed, because these Indians hold labor in the greatest contempt. The Kaskaskias, Cahokias and Peorias, are remnants of formidable tribes. They have been nearly annihilated in their wars with the Saukies and Foxes, originally provoked by the assassination of the Saukie chief Pontiac. They are reduced to 250 warriorsóreside principally between the Kaskaskia and Illinois. The Delawares and Shawanese have a summer residence four miles below Au Vase river. The Piankashaws and Mascontins mostly inhabit the Mascontin, Tortue and Rejoicing branches of the Wabash; their total number of souls about 600. [source: THE WESTERN GAZETTEER OR EMIGRANT'S DIRECTORY, By Samuel R. Brown, Auburn, N. Y., 1817]

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Transcribed by Kim Torp