Monday, January 8, 2018

Henri de Tonti and his Connection with what would become Illinois. (1650-1704)

Henri de Tonti
Henri de Tonti, (or Tonty as it is sometimes spelled) was born near Naples in 1650. Tonti joined the French Navy and later the French Army. In 1677 he lost his right hand in a battle during the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Thereafter, he wore an iron hand inside a glove, earning him the nickname, "Iron Hand."

In 1678, then living in New France (roughly modern-day Quebec), he began his travels with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who found him to be an able companion.

It was in January of 1680 that La Salle and Tonti founded Fort Crèvecoeur on the east bank of the Illinois River, near modern-day Peoria. La Salle left Tonti to hold Fort Crèvecoeur in Illinois, while La Salle returned to Ontario. The fort was completed in March of 1680. Shortly after this, Tonti left with a party to secure the fortifications at Fort St. Louis located at Starved Rock, [1] {Illinois}. The remaining people at Fort Crèvecoeur pillaged the stores of supplies and supposedly fled back to Canada.

In the spring of 1682, Tonti journeyed with La Salle on his descent of the Mississippi River. Tonti's letters and journals are valuable source materials on these explorations. Henri de Tonti returned to the fort to salvage what he could, moving what was left to Fort St. Louis.

When La Salle returned to France in 1683, he left Tonti behind to hold Fort Saint Louis on the Illinois River. He was to relinquish this control for a period to Louis-Henri de Baugy, under the orders of Frontenac. Three years later, he learned from remnants of La Salle's ill-fated Texas settlement that La Salle was attempting to ascend the Mississippi River. Tonti proceeded south on his own in an attempt to meet La Salle on his ascent. He failed to find La Salle and made it to the Gulf of Mexico before turning back. He left several men near the mouth of the Arkansas River to establish a trading post there on land granted to him by La Salle for his service. This location would become the historical Arkansas Post, the first permanent European settlement in the lower Mississippi region.

During 1687, Tonti was engaged in wars with the English and their Iroquois allies. In 1688, he returned to Fort Saint Louis and found members of La Salle's party who concealed the fact of La Salle's death. Tonti sent out parties to find survivors and then started out himself in October 1689.

In 1691, Tonti returned to the site and built another settlement, usually called Fort Pimiteoui. It would remain a settlement and trading post throughout the colonial period. The settlement would become what we know today as Peoria. This is also the basis of Peoria's claim for being Illinois' oldest city.

Henri de Tonti later went on to settle in the Louisiana Territory. He died of yellow fever in 1704.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

[1] Starved Rock State Park is rich with the footprints of Henri de Tonti. Tonti Canyon is narrow with two 80 foot waterfalls. There is a back canyon with 3 more waterfalls that only flow with snow melt or rain run off. It's a beautiful place. Tonti canyon connects to LaSalle Canyon, which boasts the largest water flow in it's series of cascades and waterfalls.