The Miami of Illinois

The Illinois were driven from the Chicago region by the Iroquois, for in 1671 Dablon states that they were then living across the Mississippi, where they had been driven by the former people. Their place seems to have been taken by the Miami, another Algonkian tribe, who appear to have been formerly associated with the Illinois, as well as the northern Lake tribes. These people were first met by the French near Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Perrot visited them on the headwaters of the Fox River in 1666 and 1670.  In 1671, part of the tribe at least were living with the Mascoutens in a palisaded village in the same locality.  Considering the extent of territory occupied by the tribe a few years later, it seems probable that when the Miami were first encountered by the French in Wisconsin, a large portion of their tribe were already living in northeastern Illinois and northern Indiana.  Shortly after Perrot’s visit the Miami separated from the Mascoutens and their neighbors, moving to the southern end of Lake Michigan.

Writing in 1721, Father Charlevoix says, “Fifty years ago, the Miamis [Wea band] were settled on the southern extremity of take Michigan, in a place called Chicago, from the name of a small river which runs into the lake, the source of which is not far distant from that of the river of the Illinois [the Des Plaines].  They are at present divided into three villages, one of which stands on the River St. Joseph, the second on another river [the Maumee] which bears their name and runs into Lake Erie, and a third upon the River Quabache, which empties its waters into the Mississippi.  The last are better known by the appellation of Quyatanons.” In 1674, Father Marquette mentions Chicago as a Wea [Miami] village; but in 1705, when Vincennes was sent on a mission to the Miamis, he found them occupying the territory northwest of the upper Wabash River. Attacks by the Sioux seemed to have caused this movement, which was later accelerated by the southern movement of the Potawatomi and Kickapoo tribes.

The Miami were a people of medium stature, agreeable countenance, and according to early French accounts, were distinguished for their affability. The women, as a rule, were well dressed in buckskin, but the men wore few clothes, and were tattooed all over the body. Like the Illinois, the Miami were land travelers rather than canoemen. Hennepin describes their buffalo hunts, in which they surrounded the herd with grass fires, leaving only a small opening where the buffalo were shot as they stampeded from the fire. Bags of buffalo hair were woven by the women and used as containers for the dried buffalo-meat.

Perrot states that the Miami village which he visited was situated on a hill and surrounded by a palisade, and that the houses were covered with rush mats. It has been claimed that the Miami were taught to build palisades around their villages by La Salle. This may be true, but it is not necessary as an explanation, for palisaded villages occurred both to the north and east of the Miami. Early explorers state that they worshipped the sun and the thunder; but it is highly probable that they worshipped various manitou, as the Algonkian people termed the many forces of nature, which they believed inhabited both animate and inanimate objects. Among the Miami who lived about Fort Wayne three forms of burial have been noted, ordinary ground burial in a shallow grave; surface burial in a hollow log, often one especially hollowed out; and surface burial in which the body is covered with a small pen of logs which meet at the top.

According to Lewis H. Morgan, the Miami had ten clans; but Chauvignerie, in 1737, states that they have two principal totems, the elk and crane, while some have the bear. Other authorities mention the crane and turtle totems. As none of these totems are recorded in Morgan’s list, the exact situation is not clear. Estimates in regard to the former numbers of the tribe are likewise only tentative; De Gannes, in 1687, states that they were as numerous as the Illinois, and at that time occupied six villages. An estimate made in 1764 gives them a population of 1,500. Though the Miami were forced to leave the Chicago region, nevertheless they appear to have been a strong people and brave in battle. For, as Beckwith points out, they caused even the Iroquois to seek aid from the American colonies, and they fought the French, English, and Americans in turn as their policy demanded.


Chicago Illinois,

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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