Monday, October 8, 2018

The History of the Illinois (Illiniwek; Illini) Confederacy of Indian in the Illinois County.

The written history of the Illiniwek Indians, a large and influential group of tribes, began about 1640 when French explorers and missionaries expanded their field of operations from the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes region.

The area's original inhabitants of the land that became the State of Illinois in 1818 included: The Chickasaw tribe, the Dakota Sioux tribe, the Winnebago, and the Shawnee tribe. The indigenous tribes of the Chicago area were the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa Nations, as well as the Miami, Winnebago (Ho-Chunk), Menominee, Sauk (Sac), Meskwaki (Fox), Kickapoo tribes. 

The Illinois  (aka Illiniwek and  Illini).  The Illinois (pronounced as plural: The Illinois') were a Confederacy of Indian tribes consisting of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamarais (Tamaroa, Tamarois), Moingwena, Mitchagamie (Michigamea), Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara tribes that were of the Algonquin family. They spoke Iroquoian languages. The Illinois called themselves "Ireniouaki" (the French word was Ilinwe).

The French were intrigued by vague reports of a large tribe--variously called the "Eriniouai," "Irinions," or "Aliniouek"  — that lived seven days' journey west of Lake Michigan. It was not until 1666 that the French contacted the Illiniwek face-to-face. This meeting, which occurred at a remote mission on the south shore of Lake Superior, began a long history of interaction between the French and the Illiniwek.

The  Europeans were hunters and warriors, using bows and arrows, rarely muskets, and never [bark] canoes... Their Country has no forests but vast prairies where oxen, cows, deer, bears, and other animals feed in great numbers. (Claude Allouez, 1667)
Jesuit map of Lake Superior (or Lac Tracy) and Lake Michigan (or Lac des Illinois). Map by anonymous cartographer, 1671
In 1666, eighty Illiniwek Indians traveled northward on a trading expedition from their homeland in the central Mississippi River valley. Their destination was a small French Canadian trading post and mission located at Chequamegon Bay on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior. They met with Father Claude Allouez, a black-robed Jesuit priest, who became the first of many Europeans to meet face-to-face with the Illiniwek Indians. Allouez learned that the Illiniwek had formerly been a nation with a large population divided into ten villages. However, costly wars with the Iroquois and Dakota (Sioux) had reduced their numbers.

Illiniwek traders made additional trips to Lake Superior to obtain guns, gunpowder, kettles, hatchets, and knives during the next few years. Father Allouez and other missionaries admired their calm disposition and viewed them as good candidates for conversion to Christianity. Father Jacques Marquette, a newly ordained Jesuit priest ministering to the Great Lakes Indians in 1666, longed to establish a mission among the Illiniwek. In preparation, he studied their language and learned their culture while operating missions on Lake Superior and on the north shore of the Mackinac Straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

One can scarcely understand [the Illiniwek language], although it is somewhat like the Algonquin; "still, I hope, by the Grace of God, to understand and be understood, if God in his goodness lead[s] me to that Country." (Jacques Marquette, 1669)

Map of Marquette and Jolliet's exploration of the Mississippi River, 1673.
Jacques Marquette's opportunity to visit the Illiniwek finally arose in 1673 when he accompanied Louis Jolliet, a young Canadian fur trader, on an expedition to explore the Mississippi River. This venture was ordered by Count Frontenac, Governor of New France, who, like many before him, sought a Northwest Passage across the North American continent to the Orient.
Marquette and Jolliet set out from the Mackinac Straits in May 1673 with five boatmen in two birchbark canoes. They paddled down Lake Michigan into Green Bay, portaged between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, and slipped into the broad Mississippi River. On their trip down the Mississippi, they saw beautiful islands, prairies, and forests inhabited by deer, bison, wildcats, and turkeys. The river contained geese, swans, sturgeons, and "monstrous" fish. However, for eight days, they saw no traces of the people.

Then, on June 25th, they found human footprints onshore and a path across a prairie. Following the trail, they discovered three Indian villages located near the Des Moines River in what is today northeast Missouri. Four men slowly approached them from one of the villages. Two carried large smoking pipes, called calumets, which were finely ornamented and adorned with feathers.

I asked them who they were. They replied that they were Ilinois; and, as a token of peace, they offered us their pipes to smoke. (Jacques Marquette, 1674)

The explorers held council with the "great Captain" or chief of the Illiniwek, where they smoked the chief's calumet, exchanged gifts, made speeches, and feasted on servings of corn, fish, and bison. The chief's village consisted of 300 lodges and was called "Peouarea" (Peoria).

After departing the Peoria village, Marquette and Jolliet proceeded down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River before they reversed their course and returned to the Great Lakes via the Illinois River. They learned of two more Illiniwek villages on this part of the voyage: a Michigamea village they heard about but did not visit in northeastern Arkansas and a Kaskaskia village they visited while ascending the Illinois River in north-central Illinois.

"We found on [the Illinois River] a village of Ilinois called Kaskasia, consisting of 74 Cabins. They received us very well." (Jacques Marquette, 1674)

The 74 cabins Marquette counted in this village, which became known as the "Grand Village of the Kaskaskia," may have represented a total population of about 1,500 people. Before leaving the village, he promised to return and provide religious instruction to the tribe. Although his health failed then, Marquette returned in the spring of 1675. In anticipation, the village had swelled to perhaps five times its original size to include several Illinois tribes. Marquette spoke to a council of more than 1,500 chiefs, elders, and young men, who formed a great circle around him on a "beautiful prairie" adorned with reed mats and bearskins.

For example, Father Claude Allouez took charge of Marquette's mission in the late 1670s. Marquette died soon after establishing his mission at the Kaskaskia village, but his death did not end the French connection with the Illiniwek Indians. Instead, many priests and fur traders trickled into the Illinois Country. The priests wished to convert the Illiniwek to Christianity. The traders wanted to build a profitable commercial empire based on bison hides, beaver pelts, and other natural resources of the vast Mississippi River valley. And, in 1679, two men  — René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle is a title only: translating to "Lord of the Manor,") and Henry de Tonti — began an ambitious campaign of exploration and commerce in the region.

Possessing a calumet of peace documents enables one to pass safely through all these nations. The Illiniwek offered to escort us to the sea from the hope that we would give them thence and that everything they needed would come. That other tribes need knives, hatchets, and so forth increases their desire to have us among them. (René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, 1680)

In 1682, La Salle and Tonti descended the Mississippi River to its mouth and claimed title to Louisiana in the name of King Louis XIV. Then, they returned to the Illinois Country to build a center of operations for what they hoped would become a fur-trade empire. First, they constructed Fort St. Louis atop a prominent sandstone cliff destined to become known as Starved Rock. The old Kaskaskia village, abandoned after being destroyed by the Iroquois in 1680, lay almost directly across the river. La Salle and Tonti then recruited Indian groups to supply them with hides and furs. Under the fort's protection, the Kaskaskia, Peoria, and other Illinois tribes re-occupied their old village. Also attracted to La Salle's colony were several other Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Miami, Piankashaw, Wea, and Shawnee, which established villages within 40 miles of the fort. However, the colony, perhaps 20,000 Indians, disintegrated a few years after La Salle died in 1687.

After the breakup, the Kaskaskia abandoned their old village and moved downstream to Peoria Lake. Fort St. Louis was vacated simultaneously, and it soon fell into disrepair. The Peoria tribe returned to the Starved Rock area in about 1711. Eleven years later, the Sauk and Fox temporarily drove them out of upper Illinois (Mesquakie). Finally, in about 1750, the Peoria became the last tribe to leave the Illinois Valley. They sought safety among the remnants of the Illiniwek  — the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, and Tamaroa  — living along the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri.

These early encounters between the Illiniwek and the French began a rich history of interaction between the Indians and the frontier representatives of European culture. The Illiniwek suffered serious setbacks between 1673 and 1832, ultimately losing their homeland, much of their population, and cultural traditions. However, the story of the people who gave their name to the State of Illinois continues to unfold among the living descendants of the Illiniwek Indians.

Of Illiniwek's once great and mighty nation, there remains... only about Seventy persons, including Men, Women & Children near Kaskaskias, and a few Straggling Peorias about St. Genevieve. (August Chouteau, 1816)
The decline of the Illiniwek Indian population, 1677-1765.
In 1673, the Illiniwek was a large group of tribes that numbered over 10,000 people and occupied a vast territory. However, in 1832, when they ceded the last of their Illinois lands to the United States, they had been reduced in Illinois to a single village of fewer than 300 people. The history of the Illiniwek Indians during the intervening 159 years is fascinating but a tragic story of population decline and cultural erosion.

The ultimate cause of the Illiniwek decline was the colonial expansion of European nations. As France sought to establish a fur trade empire in Canada, British colonies grew along the Atlantic seaboard, and Spain established footholds in Florida and Texas. During the late 1700s, Americans began settling the Ohio River valley, and Spain took over the area of Louisiana located west of the Mississippi River. The Illiniwek got caught in a vise that applied pressure to them from all directions. Warfare and disease caused massive depopulation while adopting European beliefs led to abandoning traditional ways of life.

"The first of December [1680], we arrived in the evening at the [Kaskaskia] village, where we found nothing but the remains from the fire and the rage of the Iroquois. All was in ruins, and there remained only some ends of burned poles which marked what had been the extent of the village, and on the greater part of which there were fixed the heads of dead persons, eaten by crows." (René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, 1681)

The Illiniwek had some traditional enemies, including Siouan tribes to the northwest, the Osage, Pawnee, and Arikara to the west, and the Quapaw to the south. Beginning in the 1650s, they also came under attack from Iroquois war parties, whose earlier acquisition of firearms gave them a strategic advantage. For example, in 1680, the Iroquois killed or captured more than 700 Tamaroa near the mouth of the Illinois River. The threat of Iroquois raids subsided in the early 1700s, but then hostilities emerged with northern tribes like the Sac (Sauk), Fox (Mesquakie), Kickapoo, Dakota (Sioux), and Potawatomi. Pressure also came from southern tribes, including the Quapaw, Shawnee, and Chickasaw. Some conflicts were inspired not by the tribes themselves but by French, British, and American forces that enlisted Indian warriors as allies.

"He [an Illiniwek Indian named "Henri"] was attacked by smallpox, with all his family: this disease snatched from him at once his wife and some of his children; it rendered the others blind or extremely disfigured." (Gabriel Marest, 1712)

Like many other Indian tribes, the Illiniwek suffered from deadly European diseases to which they had no immunity. Smallpox epidemics occurred in the region in 1704, 1732, and 1756. Several outbreaks of unidentified diseases also killed at least 200 Kaskaskia Indians in 1714.

Although the Illiniwek Indian population became dangerously small in the early 1800s, the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes survived and, in 1832, settled on a joint reservation in what is today eastern Kansas. They merged with the Wea and Piankashaw tribes in 1854 and became the Confederated Peoria Tribe. In 1867, under the leadership of Chief Baptiste Peoria, they left Kansas and moved to a new reservation in the Indian Territory (presently northeast Oklahoma). Several years later, they were joined on the reservation by members of the Miami Tribe. The Confederated Peorias officially merged with the Miamis in 1873, forming the United Peoria and Miami Tribe, although this union dissolved in the 1920s.

Today, the living descendants of the Illiniwek Indians are represented by the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, which was incorporated as an independent tribe in 1940. The Peoria Tribe maintains its headquarters in Miami, Oklahoma, with 2,639 members throughout the United States. The tribe is governed by an elected chief and Business Committee.

Additional Reading: The History of the Illinois Country from 1673-1782.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Love this. Very informative.

  2. These are an Incredible grouping of articles regarding the letter of the known factual history of the Indigenous people of the region.The article started as agknowledging
    an Icon to remember and honor them.


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