The Illinois Indians – Indian Wars

Some years ago there was deposited in the Archives of the “Historical Society” of Chicago a record in reference to the history of the Illinois Indians, a portion of which is interesting as connected with this matter. It was deposited by Judge Caton, who became a citizen of Chicago thirty-nine years ago, when the whole country was occupied as the hunting grounds of the Pottowattomie tribe. Their chief, Shabboni, died in 1849, the only remnant of this once powerful tribe. Of him it could be truth-fully said he was the last of his race.

Comparatively not long since the surrounding country was mainly occupied by the Illinois tribe, an important people, ranging from the Wabash River to the Mississippi, and from the Ohio to Lake Superior. They lived mostly in Northern Illinois, centering in La Salle County. Then near Utica stood the largest town ever constructed by Northern Indians, and their great cemeteries attest the extent of the populous hordes of Indians who roamed the forests and prairies at will. La Salle, the Pioneer, discovered them before the great Iroquois Confederation had reached them, after their battle-fields had strewn their victims all along from the Atlantic Coast to the Wabash and from the lakes, and even north of them to the Alleghanies and the Ohio. The Iroquois or Six Nations, with a great slaughter, defeated this hitherto invincible people, laid waste their great city, and scattered them in broken bands over their wide domain. They never recovered from this blow. For a century they struggled, but were finally exterminated by the Pottowattomies and Ottawas at Starved Rock, on the Illinois River.

The death of the chief of the Ottawas, Pontiac, occurred in 1766. To this day some of the effects of his rule are remembered by the tribes which still existing, claim derivation from the original Ottawas.

In reference to the Pottowattomies in connection with the settlement of Illinois, they concluded in Chicago, in 1835, their last treaty with the Government, by which they disposed of all their lands the hunting grounds of their once mighty domain.

In 1835, and for the last time, the whole tribe assembled at Chicago to receive the annuity from the government, and to make the final start for the Missouri River. Chicago had then began to present the appearance of a city, and these Indians had been in the habit of visiting it when the grass grew waist high, where stood, before the great fire of 1871, the Tremont and Sherman Houses. They must have been impressed with the signs that a mightier race had come, and that before its advance they must fade away.

Their last great war dance in which over eight hundred warriors joined, occurred in August 1835. They appreciated it as the last on their native soil that it was a sort of funeral ceremony of old associations and memories, and nothing was omitted to lend to it all the grandeur and solemnity possible.

The following description of this last great assemblage and war dance, with all its strange, weird-like accompaniments, we quote from Judge Caton’s Record. It may well seem as a fitting close to the history of the descendants of the great nation who were the monarchs of the continent when Columbus first touched its shores.

They assembled at the Court House (near where the old Lake House stood), on the north side of the River, at Chicago. An immense assemblage of the settlers and inhabitants from the surrounding country had gathered to witness this strange spectacle, for it was one which was never again to be seen on the east side of the Mississippi. Says the Record:

“The Indians were all entirely naked, excepting a strip of cloth around the loins. Their bodies were covered all over with a variety of brilliant paints. On their faces particularly, they seemed to have exhausted their art of hideous decoration. Foreheads, cheeks and noses were covered with curved stripes of red or vermillion, which were edged with black points, and gave the appearance of a horrid grin all over the countenance. The long, coarse, black hair was gathered into scalp locks on the tops of their heads, and decorated with hawks and eagles feathers, some strung together, so as to extend down the back nearly to the ground. They were principally armed with tomahawks and war clubs. They were led by what answered to a band of music, which created what may be termed a discordant din of hideous noises, produced by beating on broken vessels and striking sticks and clubs together.

They advanced, not with a regular march, but with a continuous dance. Their actual progress was quite slow. They proceeded up and along the bank of the river, on the north side, stopping in front of every house they passed, where they performed some extraordinary exploits. They crossed the North Branch on the old bridge which stood near where the railroad bridge now stands, and thence proceeded south, along the west side, to the bridge across the South Branch, which stood south of where the Lake street Bridge is now located, which was nearly in front and in full view from the parlor windows of the Sauganash Hotel, on the corner of Lake and Market streets. It was then a fashionable boarding house, and quite a number of young married people had rooms there. The parlor was on the second story, fronting west, from the windows of which the best view of the dance was to be obtained, and these were filled with ladies so soon as the dance commenced. From this point of view my own observations were made. Although a dim clatter had been heard for some time, they did not come into view from the point of observation till they had proceeded so far west as to come on a line with the house, which was before they had reached the North Branch Bridge. From that time on they were in full view all the way to the South Branch Bridge, which was nearly before us, the wild band which was in front as they came upon the bridge, re-doubling their blows to increase the noise, closely followed by the warriors, who had now wrought themselves into a perfect frenzy.

The morning was very warm, and the perspiration was pouring from them almost in streams. Their eyes were wild and blood-shot. Their countenances had assumed an expression of all the worst passions which can find a place in the heart of a Indian fierce anger, terrible hate, dire revenge, remorseless cruelty all were expressed in their terrible features. ***** Their muscles stood out in great hard knots, as if wrought to a tension which must burst them. Their tomahawks were thrown and brandished about in every direction, and the most terrible ferocity, and with a fire and energy which could only result from the highest excitement, and with every step and every gesture, they uttered the most frightful yells, in every imaginable key and note, though generally the highest and shrillest possible. The dance, which was ever continued, consisted of leaps and spasmodic steps, now forward, and now back or sideways, with the whole body distorted into every imaginable unnatural position, most generally stooping forward, with the head and face thrown up, the back arched down, first one foot thrown far forward and then withdrawn, and the other similarly thrust out, frequently squatting to the ground, and all with a movement almost as quick as lightning. The weapons were brandished as if they would slay a thousand enemies at every blow, while the yells and screams they uttered were broken up and multiplied and rendered all the more hideous by a rapid clapping of the mouth with the palm of the hand.

To see such an exhibition by a single individual would have been sufficient to excite a sense of fear in a person not over nervous. Eight hundred such, all under the influence of the strongest and wildest excitement, constituting a raging sea of dusky, painted, naked fiends, presented a spectacle absolutely appalling. When the head of the column had reached the front of the hotel, leaping, dancing, gesticulating and screaming, while they looked up at the windows with hell itself depicted in their faces, at the “Chemokaman squaws,” with which they were filled, and brandishing their weapons as if they were about to make a real attack in deadly earnest. The rear was still on the other side of the river, two hundred yards oft, and all the intervening space, including the bridge and its approaches, was covered with this raging Indianry glistening in the sun, reeking with streaming sweat, fairly frothing at their mouths with unaffected rage, it seemed as if we had a picture of hell itself before us, and a carnival of the damned spirits there confined, whose pastimes we may suppose should present some such scene as this.

At this stage of the spectacle I was interested to observe the effect it had upon the different ladies who occupied the windows almost within the reach of the war-clubs in the hands of the excitable Indians just below them. Most of them had become accustomed to the sight of the naked Indians during the several weeks they had occupied the town, and had even seen them in a dance before, for several minor dances had been previously performed. But this far excelled in the horrid anything which they had previously witnessed. Others, however, had just arrived in town and had never seen an Indian before the last few days, and knew nothing of the wild Western Indians but what they had learned of their fearful butcheries and tortures in legends and histories. To those most familiar with them the scenes seemed actually appalling, and but few stood it through and met the fierce glare of the Indian eyes below them without shrinking. It was a place to try the human nerves of even the stoutest, and all felt that one such sight was enough for a lifetime. The question forced itself on even those who had seen them most “What if they should, in their maddened frenzy, turn this sham warfare into a real attack? How easy it would be for them to massacre us all, and leave not a single soul to tell the story. “Some such remark as this was often heard, and it was not strange if the cheeks of all paled at the thought of such possibility.

And so ended the dance, and thence forward the white man with his enterprise, art, and refinement, took absolute possession of the great State, and carried forward the creation of one of the grandest cities on the continent, the almost entire destruction of which has been so graphically portrayed by the historian in the work issued in the present year (1872) , entitled “Chicago Before and After the Fire.” Published by Wells & Co., at 432 Broome St., New York.

Sherman, Tremont,

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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