Thursday, July 5, 2018

The History of Illinois' Fort St. Louis du Rocher.

During the winter of 1682 and 1683, men working under the direction of Jacques Bourdon d'Autray, a trusted member of explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's (or: René-Robert de La Salle) inner circle, began construction of Fort Saint Louis du Rocher (Fort St. Louis) at today's Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois river [1]. The Illinois tribe called it "Ahseni" - the French called it "du Rocher" which means "The Rock."
The Starved Rock State Park location of Fort Saint Louis du Rocher on the Illinois River.
A wooden palisade was the only form of defense that La Salle used in securing the site. Inside the fort were a few wooden houses and native shelters.
A wooden palisade frontier fort fence.
The French intended Fort Saint Louis du Rocher to be the first of several forts to defend against English incursions and keep their settlements confined to eastern America and protected entry to France's claim of the Mississippi Valley (the Indians called the Mississippi River, "Sinnissippi," meaning "rocky waters") through the Illinois Country. The fort protected La Salle's men from attack—namely from the Iroquois Indians—enemies of the French and local tribes.

In March of 1683, the fort was completed, named Fort Saint Louis de Rocher, built on the butte (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top -- similar to but narrower than a mesa) which provided an advantageous position for the fort above the Illinois River.

Accompanying the French to the region were allied members of several Indian tribes from eastern areas, who integrated with the Kaskaskia were the Miami, Shawnee, and Mahican. The tribes established a new settlement across the river from the base of the butte. The French called the village both the Grand Village du Kaskaskia and La Vantum ("the washed"), also known as the Grand Village and the Old Kaskaskia Village which was near present Utica, Illinois.

René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle
The fort was at the center of what history calls "La Salle's Colony," a place where trade was conducted between La Salle's agents and the estimated 20,000 Native Americans who lived in the Starved Rock region. The fort was diplomatic headquarters for relations between the Indians of the Colony and the French.

By 1689, inter-tribal bickering caused the non-Illinois tribes to leave the Starved Rock region and return to their former homes in today's Indiana, Lower Michigan, and elsewhere. With the natural resources dwindling, the nutrients in the soil sapped by years of successive farming, and with concerns of another bout with the Iroquois, the Illinois sub-tribes who lived at the Kaskaskia Reservation, located about a mile upstream and on the opposite side of the Illinois River, abandoned their camps and relocated to Lake Peoria.

For the next eight years command at the fort changed hands between La Salle, Henri de Tonti, Henri-Louis Baugy, and then back to Tonti. After La Salle's five year monopoly ended, Governor Joseph-Antoine de La Barre wished to obtain Fort Saint Louis du Rocher along with Fort Frontenac for himself. By orders of the governor, traders and his officers were escorted to Illinois.

Without customers left to support trade efforts on Starved Rock, the French abandoned Fort Saint Louis du Rocher and built a new fort near the new Illinois camps by Peoria. During the French and Indian Wars, the French used the fort as a refuge against attacks by Iroquois, who were allied with the British. The Iroquois forced the settlers, then commanded by Henri de Tonti, to abandon the fort in 1691.

Henri de Tonti reorganized the settlers at Fort Pimiteoui in modern-day Peoria. (Fort de Crévecoeur was also known variously as Fort Saint Louis II, Fort Saint Louis du Pimiteoui, Fort Pimiteoui, and Old Fort Peoria (Pimiteoui, was the name of what is today's Peoria Lake.) 

1691 marks the end of French occupation of the fort on the Rock and colonization efforts in the Upper Illinois River. French troops commanded by Pierre Deliette may have occupied Fort Saint Louis du Rocher from 1714 to 1718; Deliette's jurisdiction over the region ended when the territory was transferred from Canada to Louisiana. Fur trappers and traders used the fort periodically in the early 18th century until it became too dilapidated. No surface remains of the fort are found at the site today.

The region was periodically occupied by a variety of native tribes who were forced westward by the expansion of European settlements and the Beaver Wars [2].
Map of Iroquois tribes territorial conquests by region and year during the Beaver Wars.
There are various local legends about how Starved Rock got its name. This is only one of the stories. The Starved Rock Massacre of 1769 - Fact or Fiction is a research article analyzing whether this massacre actually occured.

The legend of Starved Rock is a story of an Indian war. At today's Starved Rock area, on the northern shore of the Illinois River, lived a small tribe of the Illinois tribe. In the literature of French and English fur traders, and the stories told by other Indians, the Illinois tribe was known as "the Illinois of the Rock." They lived quietly, farming their gardens, hunting deer, otter, muskrat and beaver. The French called the village across the river from Fort Saint Louis du Rocher both the Grand Village du Kaskaskia and La Vantum ("the washed"), also known as the Grand Village and the Old Kaskaskia Village which was near present Utica, Illinois. A few times a year they traded their furs with the French voyageurs who made regular trips up and down the Illinois River.

In the 1760s the Illinois Indians fought the fierce Iroquois who came from the east coast. Later the Mesquakie (Fox), Sac (Sauk), Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Ottawa Indians from the north and east joined with the Iroquois. The wars were generally short and very dangerous because the Iroquois always involved surprise attacks on peaceful, unsuspecting Indian villages.

Lone Indian warriors who crossed the river to hunted small game in the canyons were attacked and killed before they even had a chance to scream out. Women tending the cornfields, unmindful of lurking danger, were hacked to death. When the marauders were discovered, pandemonium reigned in their village. Some of the villagers ran to hiding places in the nearby woods or the canyons across the river. The warriors grabed their weapons and went out to confront the enemy. War cries and death chants intermingled as the battle was fought. It ended only when the attackers were dead, injured or they could not continue to fight, or, they would run.
Chief Pontiac
Pontiac or Obwandiyag was an Odawa (Ottawa) war chief who was murdered on April 20, 1769 near the French town of Cahokia. Most accounts place his murder in Cahokia, but historian Gregory Dowd wrote that the killing probably happened in a nearby Indian village. The murderer was a Peoria warrior whose name has not been preserved. He was apparently avenging his uncle, a Peoria chief named Makachinga (Black Dog) whom Pontiac had stabbed and badly wounded in 1766. A Peoria tribal council authorized Pontiac's execution. The Peoria warrior came behind Pontiac, stunned him by clubbing him, and stabbed him to death.

Various rumors quickly spread about the circumstances of Pontiac's death, including one that the British had hired his killer. According to a story recorded by historian Francis Parkman in The Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851), a terrible war of retaliation against the Peoria Indians resulted from Pontiac's murder. This legend is still sometimes repeated, but there is no evidence that there were any Indian reprisals for Pontiac's murder.

The Ottawa tribe was unable to avenge his death. One of his allied tribes, the Potawatomi did, however, set out on the warpath against the Illinois in the fall of the same year. The Potawatomi did not know that the Illinois of the Rock were innocent of the murder when they fell upon the little village. The Ottawa were busily gathering its yearly harvest. Unable to defend themselves when the hostile forces swept down upon them from the paths along the northern bluffs, the Illinois waded across the low waters of the Illinois river and sought refuge on top of the rock.

The Potawatomi followed them and tried to scale the steep walls of the rock but were always repulsed. Unable to conquer the Illinois by storming the heights, the beseigers camped at the foot of the rock, determined to wait until the Illinois would be forced to come down.

Before long the food supply of the Illinois gave out, and their water supply too, for the Potawatomi were careful to cut the ropes of the water buckets that were lowered into the river from time to time. Three long weeks the Illinois stayed on the rock. Before the first week had passed, they had eaten their dogs; by the time of the third week they were eating grass and bark. Hunger and thirst brought the realization that they must descend and chance a battle or die of starvation. They resolved to sneak through the Potawatomi camp during some propitious night.

On the first dark stormy night the procession silently made its way down the steep eastern face of the rock. The first of the Illinois were already passing through the outposts of the sleeping Potawatomi camp when the last were leaving the top of the rock. A mother slipped as she made her way down the cliff, her child began to cry, and the Potawatomi were awakened. The slaughter that took place within the narrow confines of the canyon was horrific. The cries of hunger-worn warriors, too weak to defend even themselves were soon stifled and then silenced. Womanhood and childhood was no defense, for women and children alike shared the warrior's cruel fate. Even those who had returned to the top of the rock were not spared. When all were dead, the Potawatomi returned to their land. Victorious, yes, but grimly appreciative of the horrors that took place in the blood-soaked canyon. It is said that even the victors regretted the clay on which they had shed so much blood.

Did any of the Illinois escape? No one knows. Many years later, when Americans were already settled near the rock, visiting Potawatomi told them the tale. One old warrior said that the only person who saved himself was one of the last to leave the rock. When the fighting began, he saw no chance but death in the path ahead of him, so he chose to lower himself down the steepest part of the rock, from which he fell into the river and swam to the farther shore and safety. Others who visited the site in later years said that none escaped.

Such is the tale told by the Indians to the first American settlers who chose to live near the rock. Yet, it must be admitted, this story never have happened. As far as is known, this story was first told fifty years after the time it was supposed to have taken place. And the men who told it admitted that it had been told them.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

Additional Reading: The Starved Rock Massacre of 1769 - Fact or Fiction.

[1] There were more than one Fort St. Louis or Fort Saint Louis:
In the United States:
Fort Saint Louis du Rocher (Illinois), a French fort later known as Starved Rock.
Fort Saint Louis du Pimiteoui a French Fort; AKA: Fort St. Louis II, Fort Pimiteoui, Old Fort Peoria; it was destroyed in 1680 and rebuilt/replaced in 1691.
Fort Saint Louis (Texas), a French colony from 1685 until 1688 near what is now Inez, Texas.
Fort Saint Louis (Wisconsin), a French fort and North West Company trading post near what is now Superior, Wisconsin.

In Canada:
Fort Saint Louis (Newfoundland), Placentia, Newfoundland, Canada.
Fort Saint Louis, a fort in what is now Moose Factory, Ontario, Canada.
Fort St. Louis (Shelburne County, Nova Scotia), Canada.
Fort St. Louis (Guysborough County, Nova Scotia)
Fort St. Louis, (or Fort Chambly), a French fort in Chambly, Quebec.

[2] Between 1630 and 1700, the Beaver Wars were battles for economic welfare throughout the St. Lawrence River valley and the lower Great Lakes region. The wars were between the Iroquois [aka: Haudenosaunee; People of the Longhouse] trying to take control of the fur trade from the Hurons, the northern Algonquians, and their French allies. The Iroquois were known during the colonial years to the French as the "Iroquois League," and later as the "Iroquois Confederacy," and to the English as the "Five Nations," comprising of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes.

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