In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact-based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.
NOTE: I present articles without regard to race, color, political party, religion, national origin, citizenship status, gender, LGBTQ status, age, disability, or military status. What I present are facts — NOT ALTERNATIVE FACTS — about the subject. What you won't find are rumors, lies, unfounded claims, character assassinations, hateful statements, insults, or attempts at humor.
PLEASE PRACTICE HISTORICISM, WHICH IS THEINTERPRETATION OF THE PAST IN ITS OWN CONTEXT.
The butte (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top) is known today as Starved Rock and has a long history. Formed by rushing floodwaters during the end of the last ice age over ten thousand years ago. The site was a French Fort Saint Louis du Rocher, the headquarters for French trade, diplomacy, and regional influence between 1683 and 1691. The Illinois tribe (pronounced plural - Illinois') called it "Ahseni" - the French called it "du Rocher," which means "The Rock." When modern Illinois was under British rule, the Rock languished in insignificance and was relegated to an obscure site on old maps.
The Illinois, aka Illiniwek and Illini [the Illinois is pronounced as plural: Illinois'], was a Confederacy of Indian tribes consisting of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamarais (aka Tamaroa, Tamarois), Moingwena, Mitchagamie (aka Michigamea), Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara tribes that were part of the Algonquin Indian family. The Illinois called themselves "Ireniouaki" (the French called them Ilinwe).
|Early accounts of a massacre of the Illinois Indians at Starved Rock in LaSalle County have long been accepted as fact by Prairie State historians. But forensic evidence for the legend is appallingly thin.|
Starved Rock gets its name from an incident that allegedly occurred in 1769. According to legend, the site was where the remnants of the vanquished Illinois Indians sought refuge from their enemies after an Illinois Indian bravely murdered the Ottawa war chief, Pontiac, on April 20, 1769. The summit was reportedly where the Illinois Indian tribe was surrounded and then slaughtered by Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians. Alleged eye-witnesses to the massacre claimed that the Illinois were killed at the base of the Rock. Later versions, however, state that the Illinois victims were starved to death on the summit. Although most accounts agree that the massacre was revenge for Pontiac's murder, some maintain that the incident began over disputed hunting grounds. After reading the many books, pamphlets, and articles about the event, many discrepancies become blatantly apparent.
What really happened? Gurdon Hubbard, an early city father of Chicago, who ran operations for the American Fur Company in Illinois during the 1820s, said: “there was no traditional event more certain, and more fully believed by the Indians than this [the Starved Rock Massacre].” In contrast, Illinois historians Clarence Alvord and Oarence Carter wrote, “All the documents bearing upon the death of Pontiac that could be found are here printed, and it will be seen that there is no evidence of any such catastrophe.” John Reynolds, Governor of Illinois during the Black Hawk War, wrote, “The tradition of calling this rock the Starved Rock is a pretty tale, which may or may not be true.” Considering these diverse views, an investigation to determine what really happened is necessary.
The evidence shows us that the Starved Rock Legend was known by the 1820s. If written documentation before this time exists, it has been elusive. This investigation has, however, traced the story to two Indians who claimed to have actually witnessed the extermination of the Illinois Indians. These witnesses, Meachelle and Shick-Shack, were Potawatomi and Ottawa Indian chiefs, respectively. The two chiefs told their accounts to two early and influential Illinoisans, Judge John Dean Caton and Perry Armstrong.
On December 13, 1870, Caton addressed the Chicago Historical Society. The topic of his presentation was the Starved Rock Massacre, an incident that he believed was an actual historical event. Caton said that he learned of the massacre in 1833 when he became a citizen of Chicago. An important year to Indians in Illinois was 1833. It was the year of the last major Potawatomi land cession to the United States Government. Concluding the treaty, the Indians agreed to sell nearly all of their remaining land to the United States and move west of the Mississippi River (the Indians called the Mississippi River "Sinnissippi," meaning "rocky waters"). Assembled at Chicago for the council were an estimated six thousand Potawatomi Indians and Caton, who said he “formed the acquaintance of many of their chiefs.” The acquaintance eventually became a “cordial relationship.” Caton related that Meachelle, “the oldest Pottawatomi chief he met, imparted his earliest recollection” of the Potawatomi occupancy of the country. The chiefs’ memory, Caton said, “Extended back to that great event in Indian history, the siege of Starved Rock and the final extinction of the Illinois tribe of Indians, which left his people sole possessors of the land.” According to Caton, Meachelle was” present at the siege and the final catastrophe, and although a boy at the time, the terrible event made such an impression on his young mind that it ever remained fresh and vivid.” The story captivated Caton.
Briefly, Meachelle told Caton that Pontiac's former allies chased the Illinois to Starved Rock and then laid siege to the site. According to Caton, Meachelle reported that, in time, hunger and thirst weakened the besieged Illinois. During an evening thunderstorm, the Illinois tried to escape by climbing down the side of the Rock. At the base, they were attacked by their enemies. A tremendous battle ensued, and the Illinois were slaughtered-the bodies of the victims lay “stretched upon the sloping ground south and west of the impregnable rock.” Somehow, in the melee, eleven Illinois braves penetrated enemy lines, stole canoes, and paddled down the Illinois River rapids at night. They raced to St. Louis, where they were protected by the fort's commandant. Safe from their enemies and having regained their strength, the eleven survivors crossed the Mississippi to make friends with other tribes in Southern Illinois. There they vanished into obscurity and then extinction. The Illinois Indians, according to Caton and Meachelle, ceased to exist.
The other alleged eyewitness to the incident was Shick-Shack, an aged Ottawa Indian chief. Shick-Shack told his account to Perry Armstrong, an attorney, state representative, and historian. Armstrong relayed Shick-Shack's account at a pageant held at Starved Rock in 1873, celebrating the two-hundred-year anniversary of the Jolliet/Marquette expedition.
Armstrong expressed Shick-Shack's account as follows: “Pontiac was the great head of the Indians of this region, and, like Tecumseh, had formed an alliance of all the Indian tribes to regain their old burial ground from the whites.” Armstrong introduced the “Illini” Indians, who, he claimed, occupied all the lands to the Wabash River. Indians east of the Wabash, Shick-Shack related, would trespass on Illinois land when the game was scarce. “At first, their depredations were few” and insignificant. But in time, they became raids and “it became a death penalty for any of the invaders to be caught on this side of the [Illinois] line.” Anyone caught was killed and scalped, which “caused these tribes to become deadly enemies.” These skirmishes culminated in a terrible war between the Illinois and the combined Miami, Potawatomi, and Kickapoo tribes. Battles were allegedly fought on the Wabash River at Kankakee, Blue Island, and Morris. At Morris, the allied Indian leader, Moquet, was killed, and Shick-Shack became the new war captain.
The surviving Illinois then fled to perceived safety on the summit of the Rock. Once there, they were struck by smallpox. Next, thirst and starvation took their toll on the besieged. In desperate straits, the Illinois could not hold on for long. Armstrong reported that one night, “much of the warriors as were alive and able for the perilous enterprise, tried to escape by climbing down the rock.” Although he didn't specifically say what happened next, it appears that most of the Illinois warriors were killed. The allies then took vengeance upon the survivors. Those, Armstrong said, “were butchered and scalped. The younger squaws and the papooses were divided among the allies.” Seven Illinois braves reportedly escaped the slaughter. They fled to Peoria and then to East St. Louis, where they were protected by the “whites.” Thus, spoke Armstrong, “was exterminated an entire tribe of Indians, the possessors of this whole territory, and a powerful and numerous tribe.” He reaffirmed that the “legend” was told to him by Shick-Shack, “a chief who was an actor in all the scenes” described. According to Armstrong, the massacre was "a legend which I believe to be history itself.”
Another early source of the massacre is Henry Schoolcraft. In 1821, he and Lewis Cass ascended the Illinois River to negotiate land cessions with representatives of the Potawatomi tribe at Fort Dearborn. Although his journal briefly references one band of Indians who were killed, his observations on the Rock's summit are important. Schoolcraft wrote that this “natural battlement [Starved Rock] has been further fortified by the Indians” by a regular “entrenchment, corresponding to the edge of the precipice, and within other excavations, which, from the thick growth of brush and trees, could not be satisfactorily examined. The labor of many hands was manifest, and a degree of an industry which the Indians have not usually bestowed upon works of defense.” He also found cultural materials including “broken mussel shells, fragments of antique pottery, and stones which have been subjected to the action of heat resembling certain lavas.”
These three accounts, that of Meachelle, Shick-Shack, and Schoolcraft, provide the basis for later versions of the massacre. Close examination of subsequent accounts reveals many details that could have only come from these sources. Meachelle, via Caton, and Shick-Shack, via Armstrong, are still cited in publications as primary sources of the event.
The most popular account of the massacre at the Rock is in the French and Indians of the Illinois River, a book published in 1874 and written by Bureau County Historian Nehemiah Matson. Matson wrote that, after the murder of Pontiac, the Illinois Indians were surrounded by an Indian army at La Vantum ("the washed"), a fortified Illinois village across the river from Starved Rock. Battles allegedly raged at the site until the Illinois defenses were breached. Twelve hundred Illinois survivors abandoned their town during the night, crossed the Illinois River, and took refuge on Starved Rock. There, according to Matson, the Illinois were literally starved to death on the summit. Only one Illinois brave survived the incident.
Other popular, if not noteworthy, secondary sources are cited as proof of the massacre. Some of these sources, including fur traders, settlers, and visitors to the Rock, claimed to have seen the bones of defeated Illinois. The first history of La Salle County, a work published in 1877 by Elmer Baldwin, contains references to human bones at the Rock. He wrote that the “bones of the victims lay scattered about the cliff in profusion, after the settlement by whites, and are still found mingled plentifully with the soil.” Even the Journal of the Illinois Historical Society references human bones at Starved Rock. An article written in 1912 by Dr. J.H. Goodell states that Simon Crosiar, "a very early settler of Utica, Illinois, who visited the Rock in 1825, told the writer that the ground was literally covered with human bones.” Nehemiah Matson wrote that a trader named Bulbona and a Jesuit priest, Father Jacques Buche, saw human bones scattered about the vicinity of Starved Rock. Matson himself claimed that he found human teeth and small fragments of bone on his first visit to the site.
The previous sources are among the most referenced, noteworthy, and weighty sources of the Starved Rock Massacre. They include accounts by alleged eyewitnesses, the observations of Henry Schoolcraft, and reports from people who visited the site before the influx of American settlers. While these sources are well-respected, they appear to be in conflict with substantiated facts about the Illinois Indians of 1769. To validate these claims and observations, we will briefly examine the alleged victims — the Illinois Indians of 1769.
When the first contact with the French was in 1666, the Illinois Indians maintained a cyclical, seasonal existence. They assembled every spring at agricultural villages where crops were planted. After the crops were established, they left the village and participated in the summer buffalo hunt. After the hunt, they returned to the village and harvested corn. The dried corn was put into hidden caches for safekeeping. By late September or early October, the Illinois dispersed to small winter camps where they hunted for food and procured hides for trade. They reassembled at their agricultural villages in late March or early April, and the cycle began anew.
Illinois Indians underwent an enormous societal change after establishing relations with Europeans. Although the Illinois of 1769 still kept the same cyclical model, many aspects of their lives had changed. At the time of European contact, the Illinois Indian tribe was an alliance of about twelve different sub-tribes. The largest and better known included the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Tamaroa, Michigamea, and Moingwena. Lesser-known sub-tribes included the Coiracoentanon, Chinko, Chepoussa, Espeminkia, Tapouaro, and Amonokoa. By 1769 only the Cahokia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Kaskaskia remained — the others either ceased to exist or were absorbed into the other sub-tribes. From a population of about 10,000 at first contact (1666), the Illinois Indians dwindled to fewer than 2,100 people by 1769. The reasons for population decline include disease, warfare, monogamy, alcoholism, and losing their land and culture.
In 1769, the Illinois lived in settlements along the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois and Eastern Missouri. Illinois camps during the period include Cahokia, the Kaskaskia River, near Fort de Chartres, and Saint Louis, Missouri (founded in 1764). Although some members of the Peoria sub-tribe established a winter camp on the extreme Lower Illinois River, the remaining Illinois Indians no longer lived on that stream. Previously, all Illinois subtribes abandoned the Starved Rock area in 1691. In 1712, however, one band of Peoria returned to the Rock and established a camp on Plum Island until 1722. Between 1722 and about1730, the Peoria lived in settlements along the Mississippi with other Illinois tribesmen. After the Meskwaki (Fox) Indians were defeated by the French and Indians in 1730, one Peoria band reestablished camp near the Rock and lived at the site until about 1751. From that point forward, they lived at Lake Peoria, and by 1763, they were living along the Mississippi in Southern Illinois. In 1769, the closest semi-permanent village of Illinois Indians to Starved Rock was two hundred twenty-five miles away, at modern Cahokia, Illinois.
Leadership within the Illinois tribe of 1769 also changed. They abandoned much of their consensual form of government, replacing it with a new position, the “Medal Chief.” The British bestowed the title of the medal chief on certain Illinois men. This allowed the British to negotiate with the tribe through one individual rather than a council. The Illinois of the period suffered from a deep dependence on European goods and relied on Europeans for protection. For example, in 1769, alarm spread through the Illinois camps that Pontiac was en route to Illinois with one hundred fifty canoes of warriors. The Illinois immediately sought British help at Fort de Chartres. On April 20th, the British learned that Pontiac had been murdered at Cahokia by an Illinois Indian. Fearing retribution from Pontiac's warriors, panicked Illinois again sought protection from the British. Recognizing that they could no longer adequately defend themselves, the Illinois of 1769 were at the mercy of the British for protection.
In their pre-contact state the Illinois Indians were independent and free people. After a century of contact with Europeans, their culture dramatically changed. Although they still practiced their cyclical farming and hunting culture, not much else remained of it. About the Illinois of the period, Raymond Hauser wrote, “When the French left the Illinois country in 1765, the Illinois people were left in a deteriorated, vulnerable condition.”
The decline of the Illinois people and their numbers are historically recorded. From it, we can determine the Illinois population in 1769 and then deduce the number of victims of the alleged massacre. To do this, we will look at the last French census taken of Illinois Indians — a task completed in 1758 under Louis Billouart Kerlerec, the governor of the French colony of Louisiana. The results of the census are as follows:
• 60 Cahokia warriors for a total population of 300• 50 Michigamea warriors for a total population of 250• 100 Kaskaskia warriors for a total population of 500• 250 Peoria warriors for a total population of 1,250
The above census indicates that about 2,300 Illinois Indians were alive in 1758. After factoring the known average rate of decline for the eighty-six previous years (76%) into the next eleven years (1758 to 1769), the entire Illinois Indian population would have been about 2,072. Caton's account, therefore, would conclude that 2,061 Illinois men, women, and children were killed (2,072, minus 11 who escaped). It is impossible to determine the number of victims in Armstrong's account because of the alleged four “sanguinary” battles fought before the Illinois fled to the Rock. Matson's account states that 1,200 were killed.
Next, we must determine whether the entire population of Illinois Indians in 1769 could fit on Starved Rock's 30,000-square feet summit. If the Rock's surface is 30,000 square feet, and if we assume that it uses nine square feet of space (3'x 3') per person, then is it possible to stand 3,333 people on top of the Rock. However, for this conclusion to be valid, no trees or other obstacles can interfere with placing people in an even and exact space. It also means that 3,333 people could fit, but they would be standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. This equation also changes if the Indians were lying down or attempting to sleep. While Caton's 2,072 people, the account with the largest number of victims, could literally fit on the Rock, it is unlikely that they would have been able to survive for long.
In all fairness, it should be pointed out that there are problems with the crime scene. In the years since 1769, the summit of Starved Rock, a mere two-thirds of an acre, has experienced looting and digging in the nineteenth century, construction in the twentieth century, and relentless, ongoing erosion. All of this, coupled with 10,000 years of human activity that preceded 1796, has obscured information. Still, enough of the site remains intact to determine if the slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, of people occurred.
What evidence should investigators find if a siege and massacre happened at the Rock? There should be evidence of defenses - some sort of wall, palisade, or earthwork that would have protected the besieged Indians from hostile enemy fire. There should be evidence of gun parts consistent with firearms the Illinois Indians would have used in 1769. Gunflints should be found, including those of Native American manufacturers. Other war materials might be uncovered, including hatchets, knives, and axes. Many human remains, bones, and teeth should also bear evidence of physical trauma, including broken skulls and assorted broken bones. At a bare minimum, there should be evidence of Illinois Indian occupation at the site consistent with 1769. Finally, the uncovered evidence should be in close proximity — gun parts, gunflints, and evidence of defenses should be found near human remains.
There have been numerous archaeological excavations on Starved Rock, including the following:
• 1947-Kenneth G. Orr of the University of Chicago and John C. McGregor of the Illinois State Museum. Two “intensive” days were spent on the summit of the Rock.• 1948-Orr and McGregor, 22 June to 31August.• 1949-Orr and McGregor conducted a project that included obtaining more information about the soil layers on the Rock and finding additional evidence of La Salle's fort.• 1949-Richard Hagen of the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings. His study on the summit focused specifically on locating features associated with Fort St. Louis for a possible reconstruction to promote tourism.• 1950-Richard Hagen continued his work from the previous year.• 1974-Robert Hall from the University of Illinois at Chicago had numerous objectives for his excavation• 1981-Ed Jelks from Illinois State University excavated a portion of the summit's perimeter where a wooden walkway was planned to be built. There have been archaeological investigations on the “ground south and west of the impregnable rock,” where Meachelle claimed the bodies of the Illinois victims lay after the slaughter. These excavations include the following:• 1948 and 1949 at the Hotel Plaza-These were conducted by graduate students from the joint University of Chicago and Illinois State Museum project.• 1948 and 1949 East and West French Canyon sites. Archaeological surveys have been conducted around Starved Rock since 1985. Some of these include the following:• 1985-Illinois State Museum examined a flood-plain exposure on the south shore of the Illinois River across from the west end of Plum Island.• 1988 and 1989-Dickson Mounds Museum conducted a survey along the river a short distance west of Starved Rock.• 1990-Northern Illinois University conducted a survey of the Hotel Plaza.• 1991-Ken Tankersly and Ham-Sullivan of the Illinois State Museum Society resurveyed floodplain exposures along the Illinois River west of the Rock and conducted a systematic auger core survey near the adjacent floodplain.• 1992-The Illinois State Museum Society conducted an extensive archaeological survey of the park. The survey included 1923 acres of the 2632 acre park or about 73% of it.• 1993-Researchers from Northern Illinois University conducted test excavations at today's Lower Area parking lot and at the Hotel Plaza sites that are south and west of the Rock.
Other non-archaeological work conducted on Starved Rock and in the immediate vicinity could have uncovered evidence of a massacre. This work includes the following:
- The construction of stone retaining walls and stone steps on the Rock by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
- The construction of the Starved Rock Hotel in 1891.
- The construction of the present Starved Rock Visitor's Center in 2004.
- Miscellaneous digging: including water lines, sewer lines, electric lines, stairway and walkway construction, and a myriad of different work that required digging, plowing, or moving large quantities of dirt.
More recent surveys and excavations have uncovered much information about prehistoric and historic occupations throughout the park. Researchers conducting these surveys and excavations have examined areas around the base of the Rock, along the shoreline from it, and places within several hundred yards of the alleged massacre.
Considering all the excavations, surveys, and other work done at Starved Rock, no evidence of a large massacre, battle, or siege that occurred in 1769 has been found. No evidence of genocide was found on the summit of the Rock, at the base of the Rock, or anywhere near the Rock. The silence in the reports is deafening. Despite extensive study and excavation, there is no physical evidence of a massacre at Starved Rock.
Further, the written record from the period contradicts Meachelle and Shick-Shack, who claimed to have witnessed the massacre. An event of this magnitude would have most certainly been reported in letters and reports of British traders, merchants, soldiers, officers, or gentle men. There is, however, no mention of incredible British, French, or Spanish sources that corroborate the witness's claims. If the region was engulfed in war, as the witnesses claim, the British Army, whose job was keeping the peace, would surely have known about it. If the tribes rallied to destroy the Illinois Indians, both French and British traders would have conducted a brisk business selling guns, powder, shot, knives, and other weapons and gun repair. Certainly, if the Illinois Indians, or a large group of them, nearly all of whom lived near British posts, were exterminated, their British trading partners, whose business depended on trade with them, would have noted that their business was in peril. Reports from the British Army, ledgers and documents from British traders in Illinois would have reflected news of such a far-reaching event. It is true that there were scattered skirmishes and attacks perpetrated by Indians on both other Indians and the British at the time. Still, there is no written evidence from the period that states the Illinois were chased to Starved Rock and were slaughtered. The Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, the Wisconsin Historical Collections, the Indian Claims Commission, the New York Colonial Documents, the Gage Papers, and all other compilations are devoid of any reference to the event.
Lieutenant Colonel John Wilkins, the British commandant at Fort de Chartres, kept a journal of Transactions and Presents given to the Indians between December 23, 1768, and March 12,1772. The journal chronicles the meetings, councils, and discussions that occurred at the fort between the British and the Illinois Indians. Even a casual look through the journal reveals that the Illinois were constantly in and around the fort until 1772 — three years after the alleged massacre. Beyond that record is the lack of any mention of an event as great as this massacre.
The Illinois Indians were a part of the historical record beyond 1772. In 1773 the "British Illinois and Wabash Land Company" bought land from the Illinois. Kaskaskia chiefs Tamera, Petaguage, Jean-Baptiste Ducoign, Couroway, Kicounaisa, and Tontowaraganih; Peoria chiefs Black Dog, Aschiswewah, and Eschawinikiwah; and one Cahokia chief named Meinquipaumaih signed the agreement. The Kaskaskia, Peoria, Michigamea, Miami and Kickapoo allied with George Rogers Clark in 1778 during the American Revolution. In 1803, the Kaskaskia signed the Treaty of Vincennes, ceding most of their land in Illinois for two reserves. In 1818, the Peoria signed the Treaty of Edwardsville, giving them 640 acres in Missouri in exchange for much of their land in Illinois. In 1832, the remaining bands signed the Treaty of Castor Hill, relinquishing all of their lands in Illinois and Missouri. Also, in 1832, the remaining sub-tribes merged with the larger Peoria; they later settled on their “western reserve” in today's Kansas. In 1854, the Wea and Piankashaw of the Miami tribe, like their Illinois cousins, merged with the more numerous Peoria and became the Consolidated Peoria. Finally, in 1868, the group left Kansas and moved to northeast Oklahoma, where they remain the Peoria Indian Tribe of Oklahoma.
A critical look at both the Meachelle and Shick-Shack accounts raises many questions. Given that thirst is a primary drive, why did dehydrated Illinois, amid a storm, choose to escape rather than recoup their health? How did over two thousand emaciated and weakened Indians escape from the Rock's summit without detection from the allied sentries? How long did it take over two thousand frail people to silently descend the Rock in the dark and without rappelling gear? Why did not the allied sentries notice about two thousand people amassing at the base of the Rock? How did the eleven starving Illinois escapees negotiate the Illinois River rapids at night and paddle 225 miles nonstop to Saint Louis in advance of their healthy pursuers? Where is the record of their arrival at the French fort? Finally, the historical record clearly states that the only Indians on the east side of the Mississippi were the Illinois Indians. Given this record, who are the Indian friends who were reportedly sought out by the eleven escapees when they returned to Illinois?
An error in Schoolcraft's record that an “entrenchment” and “other excavations” were present on the summit adds to the misinformation about the massacre at the Rock. It appears that Schoolcraft believed that these features were proof that the Illinois were besieged at the site. Although Schoolcraft was a man of science, archaeology, as we know it today in the United States, did not exist in the early nineteenth century. Archaeology of that period was essentially a treasure hunt-not an anthropological endeavor that pieced together bits of information to reconstruct how people from an earlier time lived. He clearly misidentified the entrenchments and excavations that he observed. We know this because Schoolcraft misidentified similar earthworks on the Upper Mississippi the previous year (1820) at modem John Latsch State Park in Minnesota. Schoolcraft wrote that the Minnesota features were a “breast-work of about four feet in height, extending the best part of a mile, and sufficiently capacious to cover five thousand men.” Schoolcraft saw Mississippian Period Indian mounds (800 AD. to 1500 AD.), not fortifications.
Schoolcraft was not the only person to have seen the excavations on the Rock's summit. The Jesuit traveler and historian Charlevoix saw the same anomalies in 1721, a century before Schoolcraft. Charlevoix wrote that the Illinois Indians had “formerly cast up an entrenchment here [on Starved Rock], which might be easily repaired in case of any interruption of the enemy.” Like Schoolcraft, Charlevoix saw something he described as “entrenchments” on the Rock's summit. Although Charlevoix attributes these to the work of the Illinois Indians, they were probably dug by the French during the construction of Fort Saint Louis (winter 1682-1683). It is likely that the earthworks Charlevoix saw in 1721 were the ones noted by Schoolcraft.
While modem scientific techniques can explain the error regarding the “entrenchments” and “excavations,” it does not dispute Schoolcraft's ability as a scientist, one of America's first ethnologists, and a credible observer. He recorded finding mussel shells, fragments of antique pottery, and rocks that appeared to have been subjected to intense heat on the summit of Starved Rock. Glaringly missing from his recorded observations are the human bones that later visitors to the site claimed were scattered everywhere! Given Schoolcraft's detailed entries, the omission of information about sightings of human skulls and bones is noteworthy.
Other credible evidence contradicts witness accounts of abundant human bones at Starved Rock. For example, Patrick Kennedy, a British agent searching for copper mines in the Upper Illinois Valley, was at the Rock in 1773, four years after the alleged massacre. His journal makes no mention of human bones scattered around the site. An American expedition, dispatched by Lieutenant John Armstrong, was at the Rock in 1789. They mapped the Illinois River and noted a place they called “Small Rocks,” today's Starved Rock and adjacent bluffs. Like the Kennedy expedition, Armstrong's men mentioned nothing about human bones at the Rock.
The first private owner of Starved Rock was Daniel Hitt. Hitt, a Black Hawk War veteran and later colonel of the 53rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, was La Salle County's first surveyor. He had intimate knowledge of Starved Rock and the adjacent property, yet there is no mention of human bones or evidence of a massacre in his surveys or correspondences.
When did people begin calling the site Starved Rock? The Rock was known to the French as “du Rocher,” a term that simply means “The Rock.” Starved Rock was known as "the Rock" during the British Regime.” In 1789, Starved Rock and the adjacent bluffs were called “Small Rocks.” By 1796, the area was called “Little Rocks,” and in 1827, Starved Rock was called “Little Rock” by Indian Agent John Forsyth. In 1821 and 1832, Herny Schoolcraft and Timothy Flint called the site “Rock Fort.” Not until 1834 does the name “Starved Rock” appear in the literature of the day.
Where did the Legend of Starved Rock originate? Is the story based on an ancient myth or on an actual historical event? Although some researchers believe that the story came from the Legend of Red Banks (Wisconsin), the most compelling evidence indicates that the legend is based on an actual historical event that happened at the Rock in 1722.
Between 1712 and 1730, the French and their Indian allies were involved in a series of hostilities with the Fox Indians called the Fox Wars. By 1718, the Illinois Indians were fully embroiled in these clashes. Not long after, the Illinois Country was in chaos as warfare between the Fox and Illinois Indians closed the Fox/Wisconsin and Chicago/Illinois water routes. In 1721, a Fox war party struck Kaskaskia in Southern Illinois, killing several Illinois Indians and a French soldier. In response, a party of French and Illinois pursued the Fox war party. Somewhere between Kaskaskia and the Fox homelands in modem Wisconsin, the French and Illinois caught up with their enemies. A skirmish ensued, and over thirty Fox Indians were taken prisoner in the fight. The captives were delivered to the Peoria Indians on the Illinois River, who summarily burned them to death. One of the victims was Minchilay, the nephew of a major Fox chief named Ouashala. Leaming of Minchilay's death, the aging chief deter mined to take revenge upon the Peoria Indians. Ouashala later told the French: “I was so angry with them for their cruelty in burning my nephew Minchilay-whose alliance to the principal chiefs of the Sakis [Sacs] has led that tribe to side with us that I could think of nothing except going to avenge this Minchilay. I had resolved, on setting out, to destroy their village [the Peoria village at Starved Rock] completely and to spare no lives whatever.”
The following year, in 1722, Ouashala's war party attacked the Peoria village at Starved Rock. Although specific details of the raid are sketchy, it is likely that the non-combatants climbed to the summit of the Rock and were later joined by the defending warriors. The Fox war party besieged the Peoria on top of Starved Rock. No one knows how long the siege lasted. Ouashala later told the French, “I pressed them very hard, and it depended only upon myself to carry out my project fully; for, finding themselves on the verge of destruction, reduced by hunger, and deprived of all means of getting water so that they were beginning to die of thirst.” Next, it appears, according to Ouashala, that the Illinois realized the helplessness of their situation and “asked for a parley.” Vaudreuil, Governor of Canada, wrote to the Minister that “They [the Foxes] reduced them [the Illinois] to such extremities that they were obliged to sue for their lives.” Ouashala assembled his warriors and tried to persuade them to meet with the Illinois. The braves, however, opposed the idea. It took Ouashala much effort to convince them to listen to the terms of the Illinois. With this accomplished, several Illinois chiefs, with three slaves as interpreters, asked the Foxes to “withdraw, as they were reduced to the last extremity.“ Again, Ouashala tried to convince his young men to listen to reason and spare the lives of Illinois, no easy task as Illinois was completely at the mercy of the Fox warriors. The Fox chief “represented to them at once that their father Onontio [Vaudreuil] was a good model, and that they ought to imitate him in following the example he had set for us, when, in a similar case, our lives were spared by Monsieur de Louvigny.” Then Navangounik, Ouashala's brother, stepped forward and sided with the chief. Eventually, the warriors, with much apprehension, acquiesced to their leader's decision. The Fox war party left the Rock and headed for home.
Even if Ouashala exaggerated his exploits against the Illinois, other independent sources document the event. For example, a mixed French and Indian force was dispatched to liberate the Peoria Indians. Diron d'Artaguette, Inspector General of Louisiana, later wrote:
M. de Boisbriand, having learned all these things, resolved to go to the rescue of these Illinois, whom their enemies held besieged, and he departed with a hundred Frenchmen [in boats and pirogues]. M.M. D'Artaguette and Tisne, infantry captains, with de Usie, an ensign, and some other subalterns, accompanied him. He then ordered Bourdon, a Canadian living in Illinois, to take the forty Frenchmen who remained and proceed by land until he came close to the Pymiteouy, where they would meet. Bourdon added to the 40 Frenchmen 400 Illinois Indians. M. de Boisbriant left as a guard for Fort de Chartres a man named Mellicq, lieutenant of a company, and some soldiers. But their journey was not long. M. de Boisbriant learned when forty leagues up the Riviere des Illinois that the enemies had withdrawn. In addition, in 1723, Vaudreuil wrote to the French Minister, “The Renards [the Fox Indians] last year besieged the Illinois of du Rocher.”
As a result of the Fox raid, the Peoria abandoned the Illinois Valley and moved to the camps of the Illinois sub-tribes who lived along the Mississippi River. They remained along the “American Bottom” until about 1730, when they returned to the Upper Illinois Valley. The 1722 siege at the Rock is the probable origin of the legend we know today.
The Legend of Starved Rock is a well-known tale that allegedly occurred in 1769. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, credible evidence to prove the event actually occurred. We know that in 1769, the Illinois Indians lived over two hundred miles from Starved Rock-along the American Bottoms in Southern Illinois and in Eastern Missouri. There, they traded with British traders, met continually with the British Army, and sold land to a British land company. Later, they allied with George Rogers Clark, negotiated treaties with the United States Government, and eventually moved to Oklahoma, where they operate casinos and golf courses today. Archaeological excavations and archaeological surveys on and around Starved Rock have failed to locate evidence of a siege or battle that happened in 1769. Also missing is archaeological evidence directly linking the Illinois Indians of 1769 with the occupation at Starved Rock. There is nothing in the historical record by any credible British, French, or Spanish authority of the period that references a siege, a battle, or the destruction of the Illinois Indians at Starved Rock. Schoolcraft's journal also casts doubt upon the validity of the story. The journals and writings of credible British and American expeditions, including Kennedy, Lieutenant Armstrong, Schoolcraft, and Hitt, mention nothing about human bones scattered in abundance at the site. Matson's popular account of the destruction of the Illinois includes pre-siege battle casualties of over 17,600-more than twice the number of both Federal and Confederate dead at Gettysburg! Considering the above, there is no verifiable evidence whatsoever that the Illinois Indians were besieged and destroyed on Starved Rock in 1769.
There also is no evidence that a group or wayward band of Illinois was killed at the site in 1769. What is known is that the Peoria sub-tribe of the Illinois Alliance was besieged by the Fox Indians in 1722, resulting in a negotiated truce. This real and verifiable historical event is, with little doubt, the origin of the Starved Rock Legend.
While the Legend of Starved Rock is not factual, it is important. Legends keep us interested in past events and help explain the present. They provide intrigue and stimulate our curiosity to discover history. Inherent in the Legend of Starved Rock is the same vitality and spirit that visitors experience when they explore the beautiful park that nears its name. Legends are great — keep telling them!
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor, Mark Walczynski