FIRST EUROPEAN CONTACT
These people are hunters and warriors, using bows and arrows, rarely muskets, and never [bark] canoes... They have no forests in their country, but vast prairies instead, 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|
Illinois traders made additional trips to Lake Superior during the next few years to obtain guns, gunpowder, kettles, hatchets, and knives. 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 who began ministering to the Great Lakes Indians in 1666, longed to establish a mission among the Illinois. In preparation, he studied their language and learned what he could of 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 Illinois 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.|
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 itself contained geese, swans, sturgeons, and "monstrous" fish. However, for eight days they saw no traces of people.
Then, on June 25th, they found human footprints on shore and a path that led across a prairie. Following the path, 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 Illinois, 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 Illinois villages on this part of the voyage: a Michigamea village that they heard about, but did not visit, in northeastern Arkansas, and a Kaskaskia village that 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 was failing at the time, Marquette did return in the spring of 1675. In anticipation, the village had swelled to perhaps five times its original size to include a number of different 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.
Marquette died soon after establishing his mission at the Kaskaskia village, but his death did not end the French connection with the Illinois Indians. Rather, a long succession of priests and fur traders trickled into the Illinois Country. The priests wished to convert the Illinois 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. For example, Father Claude Allouez took charge of Marquette's mission in the late 1670s. And, in 1679, two men -- René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and Henry de Tonti -- began an ambitious campaign of exploration and commerce in the region.
THE FUR TRADE EMPIRE
The possession of a calumet of peace enables one to pass safely through all of these nations... The Illinois offered to escort us to the sea from the hope that we have given them that thence will come everything which they need. 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 it had been 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 at various locations within about 60 km of the fort. However, the colony, which comprised perhaps 20,000 Indians, disintegrated a few years after La Salle's death in 1687.
After the breakup, the Kaskaskia abandoned their old village and moved downstream to Peoria Lake. Fort St. Louis was vacated at the same time, and it soon fell into disrepair. The Peoria tribe did return to the Starved Rock area in about 1711, but eleven years later they were temporarily driven out of the upper Illinois by war parties of the Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie). Finally, in about 1750, the Peoria became the last Illinois tribe to leave the Illinois Valley. They sought safety among the remnants of other Illinois groups--the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea and Tamaroa--who were living along the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri.
These early encounters between the Illinois and the French began a rich history of interaction between the Indians and the frontier representatives of European culture. The Illinois suffered serious setbacks between 1673 and 1832, ultimately losing their homeland, much of their population, and many of their 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 Illinois Indians.
THE ILLINOIS DECLINE
Of the once great & powerful nation of Illinois, there remains... only about Seventy persons including Men, Women & Children near Kaskaskias, and a few Straggling Peorias about St. Genevieve. (August Chouteau, 1816)
|Decline of the Illinois Indian population, 1677-1765.|
The ultimate cause of the Illinois 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 Illinois got caught in a vise that applied pressure to them from all directions. Warfare and disease caused massive depopulation, while the adoption of European beliefs led to the abandonment of traditional ways of life.
The first of December , 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 Illinois had a number of 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 Illinois 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 Native American tribes, the Illinois suffered from deadly European diseases to which they had no immunity. Smallpox epidemics occurred in the region in about 1704, 1732, and 1756. There were also several epidemics of unidentified diseases, one of which killed at least 200 Kaskaskia Indians in 1714.
THE ILLINOIS TODAY
Although the Illinois Indian population became dangerously small in the early 1800s, the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes did survive 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 known as the Confederated Peoria Tribe. In 1867, under the leadership of Chief Baptiste Peoria, they left Kansas and moved to a new reservation in 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 Illinois 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, and currently has 2,639 members living 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 Neil Gale, Ph.D.