Native American caught large fish with spears and smaller fish with nets, traps or baited hooks.

End of the Illinois Tribe

Native American caught large fish with spears and smaller fish with nets, traps or baited hooks.
Native American caught large fish with spears and smaller fish with nets, traps or baited hooks.

It was very different, however, with the Prairie Indians. They despised the cultivation of the soil as too mean even for their women and children, and deemed the captures of the chase as the only fit food for a valorous people. The corn, which grew like grass from the earth which they trod beneath their feet was not proper meat to feed their greatness. Nor did they open their ears to the lessons of love and religion tendered them by those who came among them and sought to do them good. If they tolerated their presence they did not receive them with the cordiality evinced by their more eastern brethren. If they listened to their sermons in respectful silence they did not receive the truths they taught with eager gladness. Even if they believed for the moment what they were told, it made no permanent impression on their thoughts and actions. If they understood something of the principles of the Christian religion which were told them, they listened to it as a sort of theory which might be well adapted to the white man’s condition, but was not fitted for them, nor they for it. They enjoyed the wild roving life of the prairie, and in common with almost all other Native Americans, were vain of their prowess and manhood, both in war and in the chase. They did not settle down for a great length of time in a given place, but roamed across the broad prairies, from one grove or belt of timber to another, either in single families or in small bands, packing their few effects, their children and infirm on their little Indian ponies. They always traveled in Indian file upon well-beaten trails, connecting, by the most direct routes, prominent points and trading posts. These native highways served as guides to our early settlers, who followed them with as much confidence as we now do the roads laid out and worked by civilized man,

Northern Illinois was more particularly the possession of the Pottawatomie, but as before stated, I have sought in vain for some satisfactory data to fix the time when they first settled here. They undoubtedly came in by degrees; and by degrees established themselves, encroaching at first upon the Illinois tribe, advancing more and more, sometimes by good-natured tolerance, and sometimes by actual violence. I have the means of approximating the time when they came into exclusive possession here. That occurred upon the total extinction of the Illinois, which must have been sometime between 1766 and 1770. Meachelle, the oldest Pottawatomie chief when I became acquainted with them, thirty-seven years ago, associated his earliest recollection with their occupancy of the country. His recollection extended back to that great event in Indian history, the siege of Starved Rock, and the final extinction of the Illinois tribe of Indians, which left his people the sole possessors of the land. He was present at the siege and the final catastrophe, and, although a boy at the time, the terrible event made such an impression on his young mind, that it ever remained fresh and vivid. I am indebted to Mr. William Hickling for assisting my memory on a point so important.

The death of Pontiac, the great Ottawa chief occurred in 1766. He was the idol of his own people, and was beloved and obeyed scarcely less by the Pottawatomie. They believed that the Illinois Indians were at least accessory to his murder, and so held them responsible, and consequently the Ottawa and Pottawatomie united all their forces in an attack upon those whose deadly enemies they had now become. I am not satisfied that their previous relations had been those of cordial friendship, but if the peace had not been broken by open war there was that bad blood existing between them which must have arisen between those who were making and those who were suffering encroachments.

The Illinois Indians never fully recovered from the great calamity, which they had suffered a century before at the hands of the Iroquois. By that their spirit and their courage seemed broken, and they submitted to encroachments from the north, by their more enterprising neighbors, with an ill grace, no doubt, but without protecting their rights by force of arms, as they would have done in former times, and sought to revenge themselves upon those upon whom they looked as their actual enemies in an underhand and treacherous way.

In the war thus waged by the allies against the Illinois, the latter suffered disaster after disaster till the sole remnants of that once proud nation, whose name had been mentioned with respect from Lake Superior to the mouth of the Ohio, and from the Mississippi to the Wabash, now found sufficient space upon the half acre of ground which crowns the summit of Starved Rock. As its sides are perpendicular, except on the south where it may be ascended with difficulty by a sort of natural stairway, where some of the steps are a yard high and but a few inches wide, and not more than two can ascend abreast, ten men could repel ten thousand with the means of warfare then at their command. The allies made no attempt to take the fort by storm, but closely besieged it on every side. On the north or river side, the upper rock overhangs the water somewhat and tradition tells us how the confederates placed themselves in canoes under the shelving rock and cut the thongs of the besieged when they lowered their vessels to obtain water from the river, and so reduced them by thirst, but Meachelle, so far as I know, never mentioned this as one of the means resorted to by the confederates to reduce their enemies, nor from an examination of the ground do I think this probable, but they depended upon a lack of provisions, which we can readily appreciate must soon occur to a savage people, who rarely anticipate the future in storing up supplies. No improvident people could have subsisted long in such a place. How long they did hold out Meachelle did not, and probably could not, tell us; but at last the time came when the unfortunate remnant could hold out no longer. They awaited but a favorable opportunity to attempt their escape. This was at last afforded by a dark and stormy night, when, led by their few remaining warriors, all stole in profound silence down the steep and narrow declivity to be met by a solid wall of their enemies surrounding the point, where alone a sortie could be made, and which had been confidently expected. The horrid scene that ensued can be better imagined than described. No quarter was asked or given. For a time the howlings of the tempest were drowned by the yells of the combatants and the shrieks of the victims.

Desperation lends strength to even enfeebled arms, but no efforts of valor could resist the overwhelming numbers, actuated by the direst hate. The braves fell one by one, fighting like very fiends, and terribly did they revenge themselves upon their enemies. The few women and children, whom famine had left but enfeebled skeletons, fell easy victims to the war-clubs of the terrible savages, who deemed it as much a duty, and almost as great a glory, to slaughter the emaciated women and the helpless children as to strike down the men who were able to make resistance with arms in their hands. They were bent upon the litter extermination of their hated enemies, and most successfully did they bend their savage energies to the bloody task.

Soon the victims were stretched upon the sloping ground south and west of the impregnable rock, their bodies lying stark upon the sand which had been thrown up by the prairie winds. The wails of the feeble and the strong had ceased to fret the night winds, whose mournful sighs through the neighboring pines sounded like a requiem. Here was enacted the fitting finale to that work of death which had been commenced scarcely a mile away, a century before by the still more savage and terrible Iroquois.

Still, all were not destroyed. Eleven of the most athletic warriors, in the darkness and confusion of the fight, broke through the besieging lines. They had marked well from their high perch on the isolated rock, the little nook below where their enemies had moored at least a part of their canoes and to these they rushed with headlong speed, unnoticed by their foes. Into these they threw themselves, and hurried down the rapids below. They had been trained to the use of the paddle and the canoe, and knew well every intricacy of the channel, so that they could safely thread it, even in the dark and boisterous night. They knew their deadly enemies would soon be in their wake, and that there was no safe refuge for them short of St. Louis. They had no provisions to sustain their waning strength, and yet it was certain death to stop by the way. Their only hope was in pressing forward by night and by day, without a moment’s pause, scarcely looking back, yet ever fearing that their pursuers would make their appearance around the point they had last left behind. It was truly a race for life. If they could reach St. Louis, they were safe; if overtaken, there was no hope. We must leave to the imagination the details of a race where the stake was so momentous to the contestants. As life is sweeter even than revenge, we may safely assume that the pursued were impelled to even greater exertions than the pursuers. Those who ran for life won the race. They reached St. Louis before their enemies came in sight, and told their appalling tale to the commandant of the fort, from whom they received assurances of protection, and were generously supplied with food, which their famished condition so much required. This had barely been done when their enemies arrived, and fiercely demanded their victims, that no drop of blood of their hated enemies might longer circulate in human veins. This was refused, when they retired with impotent threats of future vengeance which they never had the means of executing.

After their enemies had gone, the Illinois, who never after even claimed that name, thanked their entertainers, and, full of sorrow which no words can express, slowly paddled their way across the river, to seek new friends among the tribes who then occupied the southern part of this State, and who would listen with sympathy to the sad tale they had to relate. They alone remained the broken remnant and last representatives of their once great nation. Their name, even, now must be blotted out from among the names of the native tribes. Henceforth they must cease to be of the present, and could only be remembered as a part of the past. This is the last we know of the last of the Illinois. They were once a great and a prosperous people, as advanced and as humane as any of the aborigines around them; we do not know that a drop of their blood now animates a human being, but their name is perpetuated in this great State, of whose record of the past all of us feel so proud, and of whose future the hopes of us all are so sanguine.

Till the morning light revealed that the canoes were gone the confederates believed that their sanguinary work had been so thoroughly done that not a living soul remained. So soon as the escape was discovered, the pursuit was commenced, but as we have seen, without success. The pursuers returned disappointed and dejected that their enemies’ scalps were not hanging from their belts. But surely blood enough bad been spilled vengeance should have been more than satisfied.

I have failed, no doubt, to properly render Meachelle’s count of this sad drama, for I have been obliged to use my own language, without the inspiration awakened in him by the memory of the scene which served as his first baptism in blood. Who can wonder that it made a lasting impression on his youthful mind? Still, he was not fond of relating it, nor would he speak of it except to those who had acquired his confidence and intimacy. It is probably the only account to be had related by an eye-witness, and we may presume that it is the most authentic, and may well deserve preservation, and so may be worthy of a place in the archives of this Society, whose proper mission it is to gather up and bring to light whatever still remains to be gathered from the memories of those who are fast fading away, of scenes whose theatre was the land we live in, and of peoples who once occupied this territory. The few dim lights still remaining will soon be put out, and darkness and oblivion must shroud forever all that is then unrecorded.

Caton, John Dean. The last of the Illinois, and a sketch of the Pottawatomies published Chicago.

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