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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Illinois as the French found it

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As Illinois’ yearlong bicentennial celebrations commence this weekend, starting with this installment of “From the History Room” and continuing through the coming year we will direct a spotlight upon the history of our state, with a special focus on connections between Illinois’ early history and the history of Tazewell County and Pekin.

The official logo of the Illinois Bicentennial was officially unveiled at the Old State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 12 of this year.

The best place to begin the story of our state is at the beginning – not Dec. 3, 1818, when Illinois became a state, but in the 1600s, with the arrival of French explorers. The kingdom of France had laid claim to large parts of Canada and the lands through which the Mississippi River and its tributaries flowed, and in the latter decades of the 17th century the French began to explore Illinois – a country of wild and unbroken forests and prairies, before roads, dams, levees, cities, and powerlines.

But, as we recalled last week, it was not an uninhabited land.

Our state’s name, “Illinois,” is a French word. It comes from the name of the people living here when the French first began to explore this part of the world. The people were called the Illiniwek or Illini, also called the Inoka, who were a confederation of 12 or 13 Native American tribes who lived in an area of the Upper Mississippi River valley reaching from Iowa to Lake Michigan and as far south as Arkansas.

When the French first encountered the Native Americans here, the Illiniwek confederation’s member tribes included the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Michigamea, Moingwena, Coiracoentanon, Chinkoa, Espeminkia, Chepoussa, Maroa, and Tapourara. The names of the first three listed tribes are probably better remembered than the others. It is from the Kaskaskia tribe in southern Illinois that Illinois’ first capital, Kaskaskia in Randolph County, got its name. The name of the Cahokia tribe is remembered today because of the famous Cahokia Mounds in St. Clair County, which are the remains of a Native American city that existed from about A.D. 600 to 1400. The people of Cahokia Mounds were no doubt ancestors of or related to the Illiniwek tribes. The city and county of Peoria were named for the Peoria tribe, which lived along the west shores of the Illinois River at Lake Pimiteoui (Peoria Lake).

Map from Robert E. Warren’s “Illinois Indians in the Illinois Country”

When French explorers and fur traders encountered the Illiniwek in the 1600s, they decided to call their land by the French term Pays de Illinois (land of the Illinois, or the Illinois Country). The French also sometimes referred to the Illinois Country as la Haute-Louisiane (Upper Louisiana).

The names of the first French explorers of the Illinois Country are well known: Marquette and Jolliet, La Salle and Tonti. In 1673 and 1674, Father Jacques Marquette, a Catholic Jesuit priest, and Louis Jolliet explored the Illinois River and Mississippi River down to the Arkansas River. The city of Marquette Heights in Tazewell County and the Hotel Pere Marquette in Peoria are named after Father Marquette (Pere in French means “Father”).

Some years later, on Jan. 15, 1680, two French explorers name René-Robert Cavelier, who had the French aristocratic title of Sieur de La Salle, and his companion Henri de Tonti established a small, short-lived outpost named Fort de Crèvecoeur or Fort Crèvecouer near the southeast shore of Peoria Lake in Pekin Township, in or near modern Creve Coeur or East Peoria.

The arrival of the Europeans caused catastrophic disruptions in the way of life of the Native Americans. The Europeans unwittingly brought diseases that wiped out many Indian tribes, including most of the Illiniwek tribes. Off to the east, European newcomers pushed native tribes west in search of new hunting grounds, leading to war between tribes in competition for the same lands. But by the mid-1700s, European diseases and war with the expanding Iroquois League had reduced the Illiniwek to only five tribes: the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa.

Next week we’ll recall the confusingly named French and Indian War.

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