Sunday, November 18, 2018

The La Vantum Village Massacre of The Illinois (Illiniwek) by the Iroquois Indians and its aftermath in 1691.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

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When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


After most of the soldiers had deserted from Fort de CrévecoeurHenri de Tonti, with those remaining, consisting of Father Gabriel, Father Zenobe, and three soldiers, abandoned the place. All the valuables in the fort were put into two canoes, and the party ascended the Illinois River as far as the Village of La Vantum
The Village of La Vantum was located on the north bank of the Illinois River east of today's North Utica, Illinois.
Here they found quarters among the Indians while waiting for René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's return from Canada. Tonti applied himself to learning the Indian language. The two priests were engaged in preaching to the natives—while the soldiers were spending the honeymoon with their squaws, whom they had recently married.

René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle: "Sieur de La Salle" is a title translating to "Lord of the Manor."

About three miles from the town, Father Gabriel and Zenobe erected a temporary altar amid a thick grove of timber. Every third day they repaired thither for prayer and meditation. Here in this lonely spot, far away from the noise and bustle of the Village, the two holy Friars would spend long summer days, from early morning until late at night, communing with Virgin Mary, saints, and angels.

Notwithstanding, these priests preached and prayed with these Indians almost daily, promising them success in war, hunting, etc., if they would embrace Christianity, but few converts were made. Chassagoac, the chief, having embraced the Christian religion seven years before under the preaching of Father Pére Jacques Marquette, still continued in the faith. The chief, his household, and a few of his friends had taken the sacrament from the bands of the priests. Still, all the other chiefs and principal warriors denounced Christianity, adhering to the religion of their fathers.

The wine brought from Canada for sacramental purposes having been drunk by La Forge, as previously stated, it became necessary to procure a substitute, as the administration of the sacred rights could not be dispensed with. During the winter, the priests gathered wild grapes, pressed out the juice, and put it away in the sacramental cask for future use. This wine answered the purpose very well so long as the weather remained cool, but it soured and became unfit for use during the summer.

The time came to administer the sacrament. Tonti, the three soldiers with their wives, Chassagoac, and family, with a few friends, were assembled in the council-house on the Sabbath day to receive the sacred emblems. Father Gabriel, wrapped in his long black robe with a gold cross suspended from his neck, preached to them, speaking of Christ, of the apostles, of saints, and of the kingdom to come after preaching, all knelt around the altar engaged in prayer, while Father Gabriel made preparations to administer the sacrament. He was horrified to find the wine sour, and the transubstantiation miracle (converting it into the blood of Christ) could not be performed. Consequently, the sacramental service was postponed until another day.

Time hung heavy with the French; days and weeks passed away. Spring was gone, the summer had almost ended, and no news from La Salle. It has a dull, monotonous appearance in an Indian village, where there are neither hunting war parties nor national dances to keep up the excitement. Warriors lay under the shade of trees, sleeping or amusing themselves in games of chance, while squaws were working in cornfields or preparing food for their families. Naked children were playing on the green or rolling in the dirt, while young maidens, with their lovers, were gathering flowers in the grove, fishing on the banks of the Illinois River, or rowing their canoes across its waters, unconscious of the great calamity that was about to befall them.

It was near the close of a warm day in the latter part of August of 1680; when a scout arrived with his horse in a foam of sweat and shouting at the top of his voice that the Iroquois were marching against the Village. All was now excitement and confusion; squaws screamed, children quit their plays on the green and ran away to their homes; warriors caught their weapons and made preparations to defend their Village and protect their squaws and little ones. During the night, fires were kept burning along the Illinois Riverbank, and every preparation was made to defend the Village in case it should be attacked. The warriors greased their bodies, painted their faces red, and ornamented their beads with turkey feathers; war songs were sung, drums beat; warriors danced, yelled, and brandished their war clubs to keep up their courage. At last, morning came, and with it, the savage Iroquois.
Iroquois Indians
When news came of the approaching Iroquois, a crowd of excited savages collected around Tonti and his companions, whom they had previously suspected of treachery, and charged them with being in league with their enemies. A report had reached them that many Jesuit priests and La Salle himself were with the Iroquois, leading them to the Village. The enraged warriors seized the blacksmith forge, tools, and all the goods that belonged to the French and threw them into the Illinois River. One of the warriors caught Tonti by the hair of his head and raised his tomahawk to split his skull, but a friendly chief grabbed the savage by the arm, and his life was spared. With that boldness and self-possession which was characteristic of him, Tonti defended himself against these charges and, to convince them of his good faith, offered to accompany them to battle.

Father Gabriel and Zenobe were away at their altar, spending the day praying and meditating and had no warning of the danger that awaited them. On their return home late at night, they were surprised to find the Village in a whirlpool of excitement; squaws were crying and bewailing their fate while the warriors were dancing, yelling, and offering up sacrifices to the Manito of battle.

On the arrival of the two priests, the savages collected around them, charging them with treachery and being the cause of the Iroquois invading their country. The priests, with uplifted hands, called God to witness their innocence of the charge, but their statement did not change the minds of the excited Indians. A loud clamor was raised for their blood, and several warriors sprang forward with uplifted tomahawks to put an end to their existence. Still, as they drew near and were about to tomahawk them, Father Gabriel drew a small gold image of the Holy Virgin from his bosom and held it up before their would-be executioners. On seeing this sacred talisman, the Indians paused a moment and returned their tomahawks to their belts. Father Zenobe afterward said this was another proof of the Virgin Mary protecting the Jesuits in North America.

All the squaws and children, with the old Indians unable to bear arms, were placed in canoes and taken on the Illinois River to a large marshy island during the night.

Thls island ls situated between the Illinois River and Depue Lake which is 19 miles due west, of several hundred acres of marshland, a part of which is covered during the summer with reeds and bulrushes. Formerly it was surrounded by water, but from the washings of the Illinois River the upper end is filled up so that in an ordinary stage of water It connects with the mainland.

About sixty warriors were left for their protection, and they all secreted themselves in the reeds and high grass, so they could not be seen by the Iroquois. But the sequel shows that they did not escape the enemy's vigilance, and this island of supposed safety became their tomb.

At the time of the Iroquois invasion, there were only about five hundred warriors at La Vantum, Chief Chassagoac, and a large portion of his braves had gone to Cahokia to attend a religious feast. But this band, small as it was, boldly crossed the Illinois River at daylight and met the enemy, whose number was five times as large as their own. While they were ascending the bluff, a scout met them, saying that the enemy was crossing the prairie between the Vermillion River and Illinois timber. As the invaders approached the Illinois River timber, they were surprised to meet The Illinois, lying in ambush, and received them with a deadly fire. At this unexpected attack, the Iroquois were stricken with panic and fled from the field, leaving the ground covered with the dead and wounded. But they soon rallied, and the fight became bloody, arrows and rifle balls flying thick and fast, while the woods far and near resounded with the wild whoops of contending savages.

Tonti undertook the perilous task of mediating between the contending parties during the fight. Laying aside his gun and taking a wampum belt in his hand, he held it over his head like a flag of truce amid showers of arrows and bullets. He walked boldly forward to meet the enemy. As he approached, the Iroquois warriors collected around him threateningly, one of whom attempted to stab him in the heart, but the knife striking a rib inflicted only a long, shallow gash. As the savage was about to repeat the blow, a chief came up and, seeing he was a white man, protected him from further assault and applied a bandage to the wound to stop its bleeding. The fighting has ceased. A warrior took Tonti's hat and, placing it on the muzzle of his gun, started toward The Illinois, who, on seeing it, supposed he was killed and again renewed the fight. While the battle was in progress, a warrior reported that three armed Frenchmen were with The Illinois forces and firing on them. When this announcement was made, the Iroquois became enraged at Tonti and again gathered around him, some for killing and others for his protection. One of the warriors caught him by the hair of his head, raising it up, and with his long knife was about to take off his scalp when Tonti, with his iron baud, knocked down his assailant others attacked Tonti with knives and tomahawks, but he was again rescued from death by the head-chief.
For a long time, the battle raged. Many of the combatants on both sides were slain, and the yells of the warriors could be heard far away. But at last, The Illinois, whose force was inferior to their adversary, were overpowered and driven from the field. The vanquished fled to their Village to defend it or perish in the attempt.

Near the center of the Village, on the Illinois River's bank, was their great council-house, surrounded by stockades, forming a kind of fortification called Le Fort des Miamis by the French (Fort Miami). To this, the remnant of the warriors fled and hastily tore down the lodges and used the material to strengthen their works.

The Illinois had crossed the Illinois River in canoes, but their pursuers having no means of crossing at this point, were obliged to go up to the rapids where they forded it. In a short time, the Iroquois attacked the Village, setting fire to the lodges and Fort Miami, which was soon a mass of flames. Many of the besieged were burned in their strongholds. Others were slain or taken prisoners as they escaped from the flames; a few only succeeded in preserving their lives by fleeing down the Illinois River. The Village, with Fort Miami and the great council-house and fortifications, was destroyed by fire, and nothing was left of them except the blackened poles of which the lodges were constructed.

When the victory was completed, they bound the prisoner's hands and feet and commenced torturing them to make them reveal the hiding place of their squaws and children.

On obtaining the necessary information, a large war party took the canoes left by vanquished Illinois and descended the Illinois River searching for the squaws and children. While these defenseless beings were secreted among the reeds and high grass of the island, they were discovered by the savage Iroquois, and all of them slain. The sixty warriors left to guard them fled on the enemy's approach, crossing the lake and secreting themselves in the thick Illinois River timber.

On the following day after the battle, the victors made preparations to torture the prisoners; their barbaric acts probably never have been equaled by any of the savages of the West. The warriors were formed into a large circle, and the prisoners, bound hand and foot, were conveyed thither when the work of torture commenced.
Jesuit Missionaries Tortured by the Iroquois.
The doomed prisoners were seated on the ground awaiting their fate, some weeping or praying while others were singing their death song. A warrior with a long knife cut off the nose and ears of the prisoners and threw them to their hungry dogs. Pieces of flesh were cut out of their arms and breasts while the prisoners sat writhing with agony, and the ground around them was red with human gore. The work of torture went on-the executioners continued to cut off limbs and pieces of flesh-and in some cases, the bowels were taken out and trailed on the ground, while the groans and screams of the victims in their death agonies were terrible to witness.

Tonti and his companions looked at these barbarous acts of the Iroquois with horror and astonishment. Still, they dared not remonstrate as prisoners and did not know that a similar fate awaited them.

While the torture was going on, the two priests were engaged in baptizing the victims to absolve them from past sins. As each one was about to expire, they would hold the crucifix before his eyes, so he might look on it, and through its divine efficacy, his soul would be saved from perdition.

When the prisoners were all dead, the warriors cut out their hearts, roasted them, and ate them to make them brave.

For several days, the Iroquois continued to rejoice over their victory, spending the time singing and dancing around the scalps and causing the timber and Illinois River bluffs to re-echo with their yells and wild whoops.

Two days after the Iroquois victory, the French were set at liberty and departed in an old leaky canoe. After going about six leagues, they stopped at the mouth of a large creek to repair the canoe and dry their clothing. While thus engaged, Father Gabriel, who was always fond of solitude, wandered off into the thick Illinois River timber for the purpose of prayer and meditation. When the canoe was repaired, clothes dried, and the time of departure came, Father Gabriel was missing, and they searched for him among the thick timber, but he could not be found. During the night, fires were burning along the Illinois Riverbank, and guns were discharged to direct him to camp, but all in vain. During the following day, they searched the woods far and near for the missing priest, and Father Zenobe prayed to the Holy Virgin for his safe return, but all to no purpose, so they gave him up for lost and continued their journey. For many days they mourned the loss of the Holy Father, as he was an old man of nearly three score years and devoted to the church's work.

Afterward, it was ascertained that Father Gabriel was taken prisoner by the Indians and carried to their camp some miles off, where he was executed. While his friends searched for him, those savages danced around his scalp.

While Father Gabriel was at prayer in the thick timber, some distance from his companions, he was approached by two Indians in a threatening manner. With his head uncovered, he arose to meet them, with one hand pointing heavenward and the other to the gold cross on his breast, making them understand that he was a priest. In vain, he told them that he was their friend and had come from afar across the big waters to teach them the ways of truth and happiness. Regardless of his entreaties, they bound his hands behind his back and led him off a prisoner to their camp. A council was held over the captives, and it was decided that he should die. With his hands and feet pinioned, a stake was driven into the ground, and Father Gabriel tied to it. He sat on the ground, bound to the stake, with his long hair and flowing beard white with the snows of seventy winters, waving to and fro in the wind. The Indians formed a circle around their victim, singing and dancing while flourishing their war clubs over his head and occasionally yelling at the top of their voices. This performance continued for some time while the victim sat with his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the gold cross which hung on his breast, and in silence, awaited his doom.

Under repeated blows from war clubs, Father Gabriel fell to the ground and soon expired. His clothing and scalp were taken off by the savages, and his remains were left to be devoured by wolves.

Thus perished Father Gabriel, the only heir of a wealthy Burgundian house, who had given up a life of ease and comfort, with all the enjoyment of riches and society in the old world, to preach the gospel to the heathens of the West, whom at last became his murderers.

Four years after this affair, a trader at Fort St. Louis bought from an Indian a small gold image of the Virgin Mary, with Father Gabriel's name and that of the owner engraved thereon. This image was presented to Father Gabriel the day he sailed for America by the cardinal-bishop of Normandy, and he carried it in his bosom near his heart until his death. Some years afterward, this golden image was taken back to France and is now seen in the museum at Rouen.

It was mid-winter, three months after the massacre of The Illinois Indians, when La Salle, with twelve companions, returned from Canada to look after his little colony on the Illinois River. As the travelers urged their canoes down the swollen stream, their eyes were directed to Starved Rock, where they expected to find Tonti within his Fort St. Louis. But no palisades were there-no smoke ascended from its summit, nor could signs of human habitation be seen. Passing down the rapid current for about two miles, they were surprised to find that the great town of the west had disappeared. The large meadow, covered with lodges and swarming with human beings only a few months before, was now a lonely waste, a representative of death and desolation. On the charred poles, which had formed the framework of lodges, were many human heads, partly robbed of flesh by birds of prey. Gangs of wolves fled at their approach, and flocks of buzzards raised from their hideous repast and flew away to distant trees.

Even the burying ground showed marks of the vindictive malice of the conquerors. They have made war on the dead as well as the living. Graves had been opened, bones taken out and piled up in heaps or broken into fragments and scattered over the prairie. The scaffolds which contained dead bodies had been torn down, and their contents were thrown hither and thither on the prairie. The blackened ground was strewn everywhere with mangled bodies and broken bones of unfortunate Illinois. The caches had been broken open, the contents taken out and burned by the victors.

Amid these ruins, the conquerors had erected an altar to the God of war, and the poles surrounding it were capped with heads of victims whose long hair and ghastly features were sickening to look upon. The stench from putrefaction was so offensive, and the scene so horrifying, that La Salle and his party turned away from it and encamped for the night on the opposite side of the Illinois River. During the long winter night, the loneliness was increased by the howling of wolves and buzzards winging their flight back and forth through the dark domain.

On the following morning, La Salle returned to the ruined town and examined the skulls of many of the victims to see if he could find among them the remains of Tonti and his party, but they all proved to have been the heads of Indians.

On the bank of the Illinois River were planted six posts painted red, and on each of these was a figure of a man drawn in white. La Salle believed these figures represented six white men, prisoners in the hands of Indians; it is the number of Tonti's party.

La Salle and his companions again boarded their canoes. They started down the Illinois River, hoping to learn something about the fate of their comrades, but nothing was discovered.

As the travelers passed down the Illinois River, they saw many human figures standing erect but motionless on the island where the squaws and children had taken refuge. They landed from their canoes with great caution to examine these figures and found them to be partly consumed bodies of squaws, who had been bound to stakes and then burned. Fires had been made at their feet, consuming the flesh off their legs and crisping their bodies but leaving the remains bound to the stakes, standing erect as though in life; poles were stuck into the marsh and children placed thereon, while others were hanging by the neck from limbs of trees, with the flesh partly eaten off their bodies by birds of prey. Among these remains, no warriors were found, as they had fled at the enemy's approach, leaving the squaws and children to their fate. The sight of these dead bodies was so revolting to look upon that the French turned away from them, not knowing at what moment they would fall victim to the savage Iroquois.

A few years after this event, according to tradition, Father Zenobe, with others of his countrymen, visited this island and found a large piece of ground strewn with human bones.

In 1829, a black man named Adams built a cabin opposite the island's upper end at the mouth of Negro Creek. The following spring, Mr. Adams discovered many human bones sticking out of the bank on the island, where the floods had washed away the dirt. The same thing was noticed by John Clark, Amos Leonard, and other early settlers. It appears the bones were covered up by the overflowing of the island and afterward brought to light by washing away the bank.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely great article on a fascinating subject I knew nothing about. Thanks!


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