The Illinois

Last Updated on June 7, 2014 by Dennis

When the French explorers and missionaries first came into the region about the southern end of Lake Michigan, it was occupied by a tribe, or confederation of tribes, who called themselves Iliniwek (“men”), which seems, and was apparently meant to be, derogatory to their neighbors. The French early changed this name to Illinois, the name by which the state is known at present. These people belonged to the great Algonkian speech family, and at the time of their discovery formed a confederacy of the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamaroa tribes. On the authority of General Harrison it has been stated that the Miami were a branch tribe of the Illinois. Bearing on this question, the De Gannes manuscript of 1721 contains the following statements: “I was told that the languages of the Illinois and of the Miami were the same, and this is true, there being no difference except that the accent of the Illinois is very short and that of the Miami very long. During four consecutive years that I remained with the Aouciatenons at Chicagoua, which is the most considerable village of the Miami, who have been settled there ten or twelve years, I have found no difference between their manners and those of the Illinois, nor in their language. The only difference is that they [the Miami] remain settled in one place only a very short time.” Whatever political bonds may have existed previously seem to have been severed before historic times; for, in the accounts of Father Marquette and La Salle, the Miami appear as a separate tribe.

Father Hennepin, about 1680, estimates the Illinois population at 6,500 souls, living in four hundred houses. La Salle, in 1684, states that there were then gathered at Fort St. Louis 3,680 warriors, about one third of whom were Illinois. The above estimates seem more exact and reasonable than that given in the Jesuit Relation for 1660, which represents the Illinois as living southwest of Green Bay in sixty villages, with a population of 20,000 men or 70,000 souls. The various bands of the Illinois were scattered over southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and along the west bank of the Mississippi River as far south as the Des Moines River, Iowa. They were first encountered by the whites at La Pointe, Wisconsin, in 1667, where Allouez met a band of Illinois who had come in to trade. In 1670, the same priest found a number of them in a Mascouten village on the upper Fox River, about nine miles from where Portage City now stands, but this band was then planning to join their tribesmen on the Mississippi. It appears that the various bands of the Illinois wandered over quite a large territory south of the Great Lakes and were in close contact with the northern Lake tribes who later occupied the territory when the Iroquois had driven the Illinois west of the Mississippi.

The Illinois were undoubtedly the first historic inhabitants of the region in question, but owing to their early extinction details of their life and society are scant. The mode of living of the Illinois, in their cultivation of maize and use of forest products, suggests the Eastern Woodland culture area; but their great dependence on the buffalo, which they hunted every autumn, resembles that of the Great Plains. The region around the southern end of Lake Michigan represents geographically an extension of the Plains into the Woodland Area, and the native culture which existed there shows a close relationship to the environment.

In the present account of the Illinois the scanty historic references to them have been supplemented by the manuscript account of De Gannes. While there is some doubt as to exactly who he was, and while it is possible that he merely signed the account, but did not write it, the manuscript itself bears all evidence of authenticity. It presents one of the most complete accounts of the Illinois, just after the advent of the French, that has come down to us.

According to Father Hennepin, the cabins of the more northerly Illinois were made like long arbors covered with double mats of reeds, so well sewed that neither wind nor rain nor snow could penetrate. According to De Gannes, the reeds for these mats were secured by the women who gathered them in canoes and wove them into mats oftentimes sixty feet long. These they called apacoya, a generic name for coverings of all sorts. Hennepin states that each house had four or five fires, and accommodated from, eight to ten families. The villages were not enclosed by palisades, but according to De Gannes were usually placed in the open, where a good view of the surrounding country was to be had.

Maize was planted in the spring by the squaws, who thrust a stick into the ground, and dropped the seeds in rows. Later in the season the old men and captives, often from western tribes, did a little cultivating with hoes made of the shoulder-blades of deer. According to De Gannes, pumpkins were also raised, cut in disks, and dried. When the maize crop was gathered, it was hidden in storage cellars, often under the houses. In such cellars La Salle and his voyageurs found a plentiful supply of food when they encountered temporarily deserted Illinois villages on the Mississippi.

After the harvest the tribes would move to the west on their annual buffalo hunt, traveling along the river valleys. As a rule, they did not venture very far out on the plains; for, prior to the acquisition of the horse, that vast, scantily watered area was a barrier rather than an aid to travel. The account of De Gannes tells of the Illinois securing water from the paunches of the dead buffalo while on the plains. He states that guards for the buffalo hunt were appointed by the old men, and prior to the first big slaughter of the buffalo, any person who strayed away from camp was punished. After the buffalo were killed, a large frame called gris was made, and the meat placed on it to be dried by fires placed under the frame. The women did most of the drying, and all the meat from one side of the buffalo would be stripped off in as thin a layer as possible. This was folded like a portfolio, for ease in transportation. If the buffalo were thin, a strong man could carry eight of these for a whole day; but in the autumn when the buffalo cows were fat, four such meat “parfleches” would be a good load. While on the hunt, deer, bear, and young turkeys were killed, and feasts were frequently given. One day, De Gannes relates, out of courtesy he was forced to go to ten such feasts, for all strangers who happened to be with the tribe were invited. He adds that Miami, Pontonatamis [Potawatomi], and Cikapowa [Kickapoo] were often present at such times.

Besides these products of the field and the chase, the Illinois gathered many edible roots, blackberries, chestnuts, and obtained an abundance of wild fowl from the vast migrating hordes of geese, ducks, and swans. Fish of many kinds were speared in the lakes and rivers. After a successful autumn the people would settle down in their winter quarters, to loaf, play games, and feast until their supply of food was exhausted. A favorite game of the Illinois, according to De Gannes, was lacrosse. As played by them, it was a brutal sport, and many people were seriously crippled by being hit over the legs with the heavy rackets or by the solid wooden ball. Village played against village, and large numbers took part. During their hours of leisure, which included most of the time save when they were hunting or fighting, the men gambled, playing a game in which two hundred small sticks were employed. The player divided the sticks, and as the count by sixes came out odd or even, he scored or lost counters. Reduced to desperate straits, the men even gambled away their female relatives in the excitement of the game.

Of the clans and other features of their social organization we know very little, except that the Illinois, as a whole, had the crane, bear, white deer, fork, and tortoise totems. The account of De Gannes adds the buffalo, cat (wild cat), and lynx as “manitous” of the Illinois, but it is not altogether clear whether he speaks of clan or personal totems.

The following details of Illinois social organization are all from De Gannes’ account. All persons in each village called one another by kinship terms, and the men had several wives, usually relatives. The “sisters, aunts, and nieces” of a man’s wife were called nirimoua; if a man was a successful hunter, he could marry all women who were thus related to him. The term nirimoua was reciprocal; that is, all such women called the man also by that term. Before he could marry, a boy must be over twenty-five years of age, and have been on several war expeditions. The marriage was arranged by the man’s parents, and presents including slaves were exchanged. When a man died, his wife was forbidden to marry for a year, during which time she must mourn hex’ dead husband. Should she break the taboo, she was killed, which was also the penalty of unfaithfulness, and her scalp was raised on a pole over the house of the husband’s family.

During periodic sickness and at childbirth, women lived in special huts, and before a woman and child could return to their home, it had to be thoroughly cleaned, and a new fire lighted. Berdaches, that is, men who lived and dressed like women, were numerous. These men imitated the ways of women in all things.

There were a large number of medicine-men or shamans, who attempted to cure ailments by sucking as well as by chants and ceremonies which they learned through visions. Once a year all the shamans had a ceremony at which they exhibited their powers, supposedly killing and curing one another. To impress the uninitiated, they danced with rattlesnakes whose fangs had been removed, and performed other acts of chicanery. On the other hand, these shamans were often successful- in curing treated in a quite successful manner.

There were several chiefs in a village. Each controlled from thirty to fifty young men. When it was decided to go on the war-path, often as the result of visions received by the leaders, the fetishes of the chiefs were spread out and invoked. These fetishes were in the form of reed mats in which were placed feathers of various birds. On the war-path the leader carried his sacred mat, enclosing feathers from the fetishes of his followers as well; their success was believed to depend on the power of this “medicine.”

Usually small parties went on raids into enemy country, the young men inexperienced in war tending to all the wants of the others. These young warriors were not allowed to remove their packs from their backs until the return trip. None of the war party was allowed to make use of knives in eating, believing that by so doing they would become irresistible, in which of his party be killed, the leader had to pay their families for them.

Usually the women and children captured were spared as slaves, while the men were tortured by fire. After an hour or so of torture the body was cut open, the heart eaten raw, and mothers hastened to dip the feet of male children in the blood of the thoracic cavity. Certain individuals were known as cannibals among the Illinois, because they always ate portions of the slain captives.

The Illinois, according to De Gannes, buried their dead in shallow trenches, with a forked post at each end; the grave was lined with planks, usually from old canoes, and the grave covered over at top and ends by stakes. Grave gifts consisted of a kettle or earthen pot, bow and arrows (in the case of men), and a handful of corn and tobacco. Often a calumet pipe was put in the grave. In the case of a renowned chief, De Gannes adds, a tree forty or fifty feet high was stripped of its bark and set up by the grave. This was painted red and black, and a portrait of the dead chief painted on it. Two bundles of small logs indicating the number of men that the deceased had slain and captured, were attached to the tree. Accounts of other early French explorers speak of the Illinois placing their dead in trees, axed from the types of skeletons found in various mounds in their country, it seems clear that the dried bones of such burials were sometimes gathered up and buried in rude stone graves.

The Illinois are described as physically well built, especially the men. According to De Gannes, they tattooed the entire back, and often the stomach. They were friendly and talkative, but easily discouraged, treacherous, and cowardly. In war they were excellent archers, and also used the war club and a kind of lance. But the proud title of “men” which they gave themselves seems to have been undeserved, for in the successive wars with the Iroquois, Siouan, and northern Lake tribes they were almost invariably defeated. The events which led to the displacement and practical extinction of the Illinois will be dealt with in the latter part of this essay.


Strong, William Duncan. Indians of the Chicago Region, With Special Reference to the Illinois and the Potawatomi, published in Fieldiana, Popular Series, Anthropology, no. 24. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History. 1938.

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