The decline of the Illiniwek

By Jared L. Olar
Library assistant

When French missionaries and explorers first came to the Illinois Country in the 1600s, they encountered the group of 12 or 13 Algonquin-speaking Native American tribes who are most commonly known today as the Illiniwek or Illini, and the French gave their land the name “Pays de Illinois” – the Illinois Country.

The Illinois Country is shown in this 1688 map of Western New France by Marco Vincenzo Coronelli.

The Illiniwek first appear in the written record in 1640, when French Jesuit missionary Father Paul LeJeune listed a people called the “Eriniouai” who were neighbors of the Winnebago. Then in 1656, another Jesuit missionary, Father Jean de Quen, mentions the same people by the name of “Liniouek,” and in the following year Father Gabriel Druillettes called them “Aliniouek.” About a decade later, Father Claude Allouez told of his meeting some “Iliniouek.” In the 1800s, American writers began to adapt the spelling of the name to “Illiniwek.”

The French missionaries also noted in their American Indian language dictionaries that the Illiniwek’s own name for themselves was Inoka, a word of unknown meaning and derivation. According to the historical records of the French missionaries, however, the ethnic designation “Illinois” meant “the men.” The 1674 journal of Father Jacques Marquette’s first voyage says, “When one speaks the word ‘Illinois,’ it is as if one said in their language, ‘the men,’ – As if the other Indians were looked upon by them merely as animals.

About two decades later, Father Louis Hennepin observed, “The Lake of the Illinois signifies in the language of these Barbarians, the Lake of the Men. The word Illinois signifies a grown man, who is in the prime of his age and vigor . . . The etymology of this word ‘Illinois’ derives, according to what we have said, from the term Illini, which in the language of this Nation signifies a man who is grown or mature.

That is all that historical sources have to say about the meaning of “Illinois.” More recently, linguistic scholars of the vanished Algonquin dialects have speculated that “Illiniwek” may in fact have derived from a Miami-Algonquin term that means “one who speaks the normal way,” and that the French throughout the 1600s and 1700s misunderstood the name that the Inoka’s Algonquin-speaking neighbors gave them as their own name.

Be that as it may, it is thought that when the French first encountered the Illiniwek tribes, there were perhaps as many as 10,000 of them living in a vast area stretching from Lake Michigan out to the heart of Iowa and as far south as Arkansas. In the 1670s, the French found a village of Kaskaskias in the Illinois River valley near the present town of Utica, a village of Peorias near modern Keokuk, Iowa, and a village of Michigameas in northeast Arkansas.

The Kaskaskia village near Utica, also known as the Grand Village of the Illinois, was the largest and best known village of the Illinois tribes. A French Catholic mission, called the Mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and a fur trading post were set up there in 1675, causing the village population to swell to about 6,000 people in about 460 houses. It was not long, though, before European diseases and the ongoing Beaver Wars, which we recalled previously in this column, brought suffering and tragedy to the Illiniwek, causing their population size to plummet over the coming decades.

In the early 1690s, the expansionist wars of the Iroquois League of New York, which sought to control the fur trade, forced the Kaskaskias and other Illiniwek to abandon the Grand Village and move further south to the areas of the present sites of Peoria, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia. At the height of Iroquois power, the League was able to extend its reach as far as the Mississippi and most Illiniwek fled from Illinois to escape, while some Illiniwek groups accompanied the Iroquois and fought as their allies against their enemies. The Iroquois did not have enough people to hold the Illinois Country, however, and before long the Illiniwek were able to reclaim their old lands. Other tribes also found it necessary or advantageous to move into the Illinois Country during this period and soon after, however, such as the Pottawatomi, Kickapoo, Ottawa, and Piankeshaw.

In the early decades of the 1700s, the Illiniwek became involved in a feud with the Meskwaki (Fox), during the series of battles between the French and the Meskwaki known as the Fox Wars. In 1722, the Meskwaki attacked the Illiniwek in retaliation for the killing of the nephew of Oushala, one of the Meskwaki chiefs. The Illiniwek were forced to seek refuge on Starved Rock, and they sent a messenger southwest to Fort de Chartres asking their French allies to rescue them, but by the time the French leader Boisbriand and his men had arrived, the Meskwaki had retreated, having killed 120 of the Illini. Four years later, the Marquis de Beauharnois, Governor of New France, organized an attack on the Meskwaki in Illinois in which 500 Illini warriors agreed to take part, but the Meskwaki escaped. The feud between the Illini and the Meskwaki culminated in early September 1730, when the Meskwaki were all but annihilated by an allied force of French, Illini, Sauk, Pottawatomi, Kickapoo, Mascouten, Miami, Ouiatenon, and Piankeshaw warriors.

By the middle of the 1700s, the original 12 or 13 Illiniwek tribes had been reduced by the wars and diseases of the 17th and 18th centuries to only five: the Cahokia, the Kaskaskia, the Michigamea, the Peoria, and the Tamaroa. According to legend, the Illiniwek suffered their most grievous defeat after the French and Indian War, when the great Ottawa chief Pontiac (Obwandiyag) was killed by Kinebo, a Peoria chief, in Cahokia on April 20, 1769. In revenge, the Ottawa and Pottawatomi banded together in a war of extermination against the Illini of the Illinois River valley, a large number of whom again sought refuge on Starved Rock. The Ottawa and Pottawatomi are said to have besieged the Illini on Starved Rock, where most of the Illini died of starvation (hence the name Starved Rock).

Starved Rock is shown in this photo from John Leonard Conger’s 1932 “History of the Illinois River Valley.” According to legend, the majority of the Illiniwek died atop Starved Rock near Oglesby in La Salle County when they were besieged there in 1769 by their enemies the Ottawa and Pottawatomi.

There is no contemporary record to substantiate that the Battle of Starved Rock, as it has been called, ever really took place. However, an elderly Pottawatomi chief named Meachelle, said to have been present at the siege as a boy, told his story to J. D. Caton in 1833, while an early white settler in the area, named Simon Crosiar, is said to have reported that Starved Rock was covered with the skeletal remains of the Illini in the years after the siege.

Whether or not that is really how the Illiniwek met their end, their numbers did drastically decline throughout the 1700s. By the early 1800s, only the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes remained, about 200 people living in an area of southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri near the Mississippi. In 1818, the Peoria, then in Missouri, ceded their Illinois lands, and in 1832 they ceded their Missouri lands and moved to Kansas. The descendants of the Illiniwek are today known as the Peoria Tribe of Indians, with their reservation in Ottawa County, Oklahoma.

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Impact of the French and Indian wars

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last week we reviewed what Illinois was like during the latter 1600s, when the French first encountered the Illiniwek Confederation and began to explore and settle the Illinois Country.

France had laid claim to a vast territory in North America, where France’s colonial rivals England, Holland, and Spain also were building empires. As these European powers strove with each other, the ways of life of the native peoples of the Americas were disrupted. Many Native Americans lost their lands and their lives, but some tribes became prominent regional power brokers who made the Europeans sit up and take notice.

The European colonial powers and Native American tribes fought a number of wars in America during the course of the 1600s and 1700s. Often the Europeans fought the Indians, or Native American tribes fought each other. At times the Indian tribes fought as allies of the rival European powers.

One of the main causes of these wars, which affected wide areas of North America – even the Illinois Country – was the desire to control the lucrative fur trade. Early in the French colonization of Canada, France allied itself with the Huron and Algonquin in Quebec and Ontario. These tribes were involved in ongoing feuds and wars with the League of the Iroquois, a confederation of five tribes or nations in New York, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca.

France offered their native allies military assistance against the Iroquois because their allies supplied them with fur – especially beaver pelts – for sale in European markets. As early as 1603, French explorer Samuel de Champlain and his companions joined with France’s native allies in a raid on the Iroquois, which quickly led to an escalation of the conflicts in that part of America. This sparked a series of wars starting in 1628 between the Iroquois and the Huron and neighboring tribes in a struggle to dominate the fur trade.

These wars are known as the Iroquois Wars or the French and Iroquois Wars, but they are also called the Beaver Wars. As the wars continued, the Iroquois League, supplied with European weapons by the Dutch and English, attacked both the neighboring tribes and French colonists. The Iroquois managed to subjugate or expel their neighbors, controlling their lands and hunting grounds, and expanding their power and influence as far west as the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The high demand for beaver pelts severely depleted the beaver population in eastern North America, pushing Native Americans to seek further west and north to find beaver to hunt.

Map By Codex Sinaiticus, based on information from The Jesuit Relations and English colonial records, CC BY-SA 3.0

Inevitably, the westward expansion of the Iroquois League reached the Illinois Country, which they had seized by the mid-1600s. When Marquette and Jolliet first explored the Illinois Country in the 1670s, they found the Illiniwek tribes at war with the Iroquois. La Salle signed treaties with the Illini and Miami in 1681. In response to Iroquois expansion, the Miami in the Ohio Country and the Anishinaabe of southern Ontario formed confederacies and alliances with their neighbors. When the Iroquois destroyed a large Miami settlement and took large numbers of prisoners in 1689, the Miami sent to the Anishinaabe for help, and together they set an ambush for the Iroquois near modern South Bend, Ind., where the Iroquois suffered a decisive defeat. Unable to maintain their hold on the Illinois and Ohio regions, the Iroquois retreated and many of the local tribes were able to move back to their former homes.

By the end of the 1600s, the French adopted a new policy toward the Iroquois League, seeking to befriend them as a way to safeguard their control of the northern fur trade and to stop English colonial expansion. This new policy was cemented by the Great Peace of Montreal, signed in 1701 by the French and 39 Indian chiefs, thus bringing the Beaver Wars to an end. In the aftermath, the Ottawa and Pottawatomi tribes moved from Canada to Michigan, and the Illini were able to return to the Illinois Country.

In the late 1600s and the first half of the 1700s, the French in North America were involved in a series of wars with their rivals the British, and Native American allies also were caught up in the conflicts. However, these conflicts did not have much if any direct effect on the Illinois Country, which was never the scene of any military action during the wars. Prior to 1754 all of them – sometimes called the French and Indian Wars, or the Intercolonial Wars – started in Europe and then spilled over to North America.

However, in 1754, for the first time a war broke out in North America between the French and English colonies that then spilled over to Europe. In America, it is known as the French and Indian War since the Native American allies of France and England fought alongside the European colonists – but in Europe it is called the Seven Years War. Although the Illinois Country was again not a scene of battle, the outcome of the war was significant for the future of Illinois, because the French and Indian War resulted in the English conquest of half of France’s colonies on the mainland of North America, including the Illinois Country. (Spain acquired the other half, the vast province of Louisiana.) The French in Canada remember the French and Indian War as “the War of the Conquest.”

The French and Indian War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on Feb. 10, 1763, when France gave up New France in Canada, New Orleans in Louisiana, and their forts, settlements, and fur trading outposts along the Illinois River Valley and elsewhere. Illinois then passed to British control – but French colonists and their families would maintain a presence in Illinois for some time to come.

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