Illinois Burial Customs

The term Illinois Indians as used by some early writers was intended to include the various Algonquian tribes, encountered in the “Illinois country,” in addition to those usually recognized as forming the Illinois confederacy. Thus, in the following quotation from Joutel will be found a reference to the Chahouanous – i. e., Shawnee – as being of the Islinois, and in the same note Accancea referred to the Quapaw, a Siouan tribe living on the right bank of the Mississippi, not far north of the mouth of the Arkansas. Describing the burial customs of the Illinois, as witnessed by him during the latter years of the seventeenth century, Joutel wrote: ” They pay a Respect to their Dead, as appears by their special Care of burying them, and even of putting into lofty Coffins the Bodies of such as are considerable among them, as their Chiefs and others, which is also practised among the Accancea’s, but they differ in this Particular, that the Accancea’s weep and make their Complaints for some Days, where as the Chahoaanous, and other People of the Islinois Nation do just the Contrary; for when any of them die, they wrap them up in Skins, and then put them into Coffins made of the Barks of Trees, then sing and dance about them for twenty four Hours. Those Dancers take Care to tie Calabashes, or Gourds about their Bodies, with some Indian Wheat in them, to rattle and make a Noise, and some of them have a Drum, made of a great Earthen Pot, on which they extend a wild Goat’s Skin, and beat thereon with one Stick like our Tabors. During that Rejoicing, they throw their Presents on the Coffin, as Bracelets, Pendents, or Pieces of Earthen Ware, and Strings of Beads, encouraging the Singers to perform their Duty well. If any Friend happens to come thither at that Time, he immediately throws down his Present and falls a singing and dancing like the rest. When that Ceremony is over, they bury the Body, with part of the presents, making choice of such as may be most proper for it. They also bury with it, some Stores of Indian Wheat, with a Pot to boil it in, for fear the dead Person should be hungry on his long Journey; and they repeat the same Ceremony at the Year’s End. A good Number of Presents still remaining, they divide them into several Lots, and play at a Game, called of the Stick to give them to the Winner.” From this very interesting account of the burial customs of the Illinois Indians it is evident they had several ways and methods of disposing of their dead. Some were placed in “lofty coffins,” which undoubtedly refers to a form of tree or scaffold burial, and in this connection it is interesting to know that when settlers entered Truro township, in the present Knox County, Illinois, a few miles west of the ancient Peoria village on the Illinois River, they found tree burials of quite recent origin. Logs had been split in halves and hollowed out, and so served as coffins which rested in forks of trees some 10 to 15 feet above the ground. These remained in this position until about the year 1836, when they were removed by the settlers and buried in the earth. These must have been the “lofty coffins” of Joutel. But the bodies were not always so securely protected, and in the year 1692, within a short time of Joutel’s visit, another Frenchman referred to the burial customs of the Illinois and said: ” It is not their custom to bury the dead; they wrap them in skins, and hang them by the feet and head to the tops of trees.” And touching on the ceremonies which attended the burial, the same Father wrote: ” When the Illinois are not engaged in war or hunting, their time is spent either in games, or at feasts, or in dancing. They have two kinds of dances; some are a sign of rejoicing, and to these they invite the most distinguished women and young girls; others are a token of their sadness at the death of the most important men of their Tribe. It is by these dances that they profess to honor the deceased, and to wipe away the tears of his relatives. All of them are entitled to have the death of their near relatives bewailed in this manner, provided that they make presents for this purpose. The dances last a longer or shorter time according to the price and value of the presents, which, at the end of the dance, are distributed to the dancers.” And when settlers arrived near the banks of the Mackinaw, a tributary of the Illinois, near the present village of Lexington, McLean County, Illinois, in 1843, they discovered a body of an Indian wrapped in bark and suspended in a tree top. The body was taken down and buried in what is now called Indian Burial Ground, some 2½ miles southeast of Lexington. It is interesting to be able to trace other burial places and burial customs of the western Algonquian tribes in comparatively recent times. After the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought November 7, 1811, the Indians who fell in that memorable encounter are said to have been buried on the summit of a ridge, running north and south and bounded on the west by the Middle Fork of Vermilion River and on the east by a deep ravine, about 5½ miles west of the present Danville, Vermilion County, Illinois. This region was then occupied by roving bands of different tribes, including members of the Shawnee. In the early years of the last century, just after the settlement of the village of Gosport, Owen County, Indiana, the Shawnee chief, Big Fire, died, and his body was taken in a canoe 10 miles on the West Fork of White River, to a place where the party landed. A stretcher was there made by interlacing bark between two long poles. The body was then placed upon the stretcher and carried to the grave by four men. Arriving at the grave the body ” was painted, dressed in his best blanket and beaded mocassins, and buried along with his ornaments and war weapons. The grave was three feet deep, lined with rough boards and bark. Over it was planted an oak post, five feet high, eight inches square, tapering to a point, which was painted red. The monument was often visited and long revered by the band. It has disappeared within a few years.” Stretchers similar to the one just mentioned were undoubtedly used quite extensively by the Indians in conveying their dead or wounded comrades from place to place. One, illustrated by Schoolcraft from a painting by Eastman, is now reproduced in plate 11,a. “The mode, of carrying the sick or wounded is in a litter on two poles lashed together, and a blanket fastened on to it.” Probably barks, skins, or mats were used in earlier times, later to be followed by the blankets obtained from the traders. The Delaware village of Greentown stood on the left bank of the Black Fork of the Mohican, in Ashland County, Ohio. The settlement was abandoned in 1812, when the families removed and erected a new village at Piqua, on the Great Miami. The site of old Greentown was soon under cultivation by the white. The area was examined during the summer of 1876, at which time it was said “the southern portion of the site is still in woods, and the depressions that mark the graves are quite distinct. . . . In some cases the remains were inclosed in a stone Gist; in others small, rounded drift bowlders were placed in order around the skeletons. The long bones were mostly well preserved. No perfect skull was obtained, nor were there any stone implements found in the graves. At the foot of one a clam shell was found. The graves are from two and one-half to three feet deep, and the remains repose horizontally.” The apparent lack of European objects associated with these burials is quite contrary to the usual custom. Often many pieces obtained from the traders are to be found in the later Indian graves, and an interesting example was discovered at the site of a large Shawnee town which stood where Frankfort, Ross County, Ohio, was later reared. From the burial place of the ancient Indian town “numerous relics are obtained, gun barrels, copper kettles, silver crosses and brooches, and many other implements and ornaments.” Such are the numerous small cemeteries discovered throughout the region west of the mountains. Each proves the position, at some time, of a native settlement, some of probably not more than two or three wigwams, the temporary camping place of a few families during the hunting or fishing season. Others mark the, location of a more important tribal center. Long after the upper Ohio Valley was abandoned by the people who had erected the great earthworks it became the home of other tribes, or rather it became the hunting grounds of many tribes, but it was not occupied by any large native towns. Later, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the Shawnees were, forced northward from the valleys of Tennessee, and other Algonquian tribes began seeking new homes to the westward beyond the mountains, the upper valley of the Ohio became repeopled by a native population, and to these later settlements may be attributed the great majority of burials now encountered within the region. The towns were moved from place to place as requirements and natural causes made necessary, and with each movement a new cemetery was soon created. Such a movement of the inhabitants of a Shawnee village about the middle of the eighteenth century is graphically described in a journal of one who witnessed the catastrophe which made it necessary: “On the Ohio, just below the mouth of Scioto, on a high bank, near forty feet, formerly stood the Shawnesse town, called the Lower Town, which was all carried away, except three of four houses, by a great flood in the Scioto. I was in the town at the time, though the banks of the Ohio were so high, the water was nine feet on the top, which obliged the whole town to take to their canoes, and move with their effects to the hills. The Shawnesse afterwards built their town on the opposite side of the river, which, during the French war, they abandoned, for fear of the Virginians, and removed to the plains on Scioto.” And this was only one of many similar instances where a comparatively small number of individuals occupied during a single generation many sites and left at each site a small group of graves. Scattered over the western country. throughout the region once frequented by the fur trader and missionary, are often to be found traces of their early posts or settlements, and probably many burials which have erroneously been attributed to the Indians could be traced to these sources. It has already been shown that at the establishment of the American Fur Co., standing at Fond du Lac in 1826, were two small cemeteries, one for the whites and the other for the Indians. This may have been the custom at many posts, but now, were these graves examined, it would probably be quite difficult to distinguish between the two. An ancient French cemetery evidently stood not far from the banks of the Illinois, probably within the limits of the present city of Peoria. It was mentioned just 70 years ago in a description of the valley of the Illinois, and when referring to the native occupants of the rich and fertile region: “This little paradise was until recently possessed by the Peoria Indians, a small tribe, which has since receded; and tradition says there was once a considerable settlement of the French on the spot. I was informed there is an extensive old burial place, not of Indian origin, somewhere on or near the terrace, and noticed that not a few of the names and physiognomies in this quarter were evidently French.” If discovered at the present time these remains would be in a condition which would make it difficult to distinguish them from those of Indians, unless associated objects of European origin would serve to identify them. And down the valley of the Illinois has been discovered a native Indian cemetery dating from about the same period as the old French cemetery at Peoria. It was evidently one of much interest. ” Upon the banks of the river at Naples are the burying-grounds of the modern Indian, in which have been found many stone implements intermingled with civilized manufactures, such as beads, knives, crosses of silver, and other articles indicating traffic with the French during, probably, the latter part of the 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries. . . . The pottery exhumed from this ancient cemetery shows that it was the common burial place of the race that built at least a part of the mounds.” However, Indians were sometimes buried in the small French Catholic cemeteries, and it may be recalled when Pontiac was murdered, in the year 1769, near the village of the Cahokia, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, his body was claimed by the French, carried across the river in a canoe, and placed in the cemetery belonging to the church. This stood on the summit of the ridge, then probably surrounded by the virgin forest-, now the site is covered by buildings, on the southeast corner of Fifth and Walnut Streets, in the city of St. Louis. But all traces of this ancient burying ground have long since disappeared.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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