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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Starved Rock

by By F.S. Allen - Special Correspondence of the Chicago Tribune - From: Chicago Tribune - October 6, 1882
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

The Scene of the Extinction of the Illinois Tribe of Indians
Its Fatal Hostilities with the Iroquois and the Pottawatomies
The Whole Band was Finally Exterminated, with the Exception of Eleven Warriors

STREATOR, ILLINOIS October 3, 1882 - Your correspondent has within the last few days had the pleasure of visiting the wonderful 'Starved Rock,' on the Illinois River, and gathered some notes in regards to its history, which are herewith present through the columns of The Chicago Tribune.

Starved Rock is situated on the south bank of the Illinois River, about a mile above Utica, in La Salle County. It is a tall sand rock, rising perpendicularly at the water's edge to a height of 200 feet above the river. It is perpendicular on all sides except the southeast, where, although very steep, one can ascend the rocks (of which I will speak later), assisted by some flights of board stairs. The top of the rock is about a half acre in size, thickly covered with tall pines, cedars, and arbor vitae. From this point one can see for miles up and down the beautiful Illinois Valley; and it is not to be wondered at that the red man always looked upon it as a safe place of refuge from the enemy. In connection with a description of this tall, impregnable rock, permit me to say that it was from the starvation of the Illinois tribe of Indians that it received its name, "Starved Rock." Hence I will endeavor to give you a short sketch of this once great people whose domain extended from the Wabash to the Mississippi River, and north from the mouth of the Ohio to Lake Superior, and who, in less than a hundred years from the time of their greatest prosperity, were wiped, so to speak, entirely from the face of the earth.

The Illinois Indians were of the Algonquin family, and were divided into five tribes - the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Moingwenas, Kahokias, and Tamaroas. They had gained possession of their lands by subduing and driving away the Quapaws, a Dakota tribe, and in the 1640s they nearly exterminated the Winnebagos, after which time they held undisputed possession of their domains until 1656, when the Iroquois Indians began a long continued war with them, which was soon followed by a hot contest with the Sioux. The Illinois at this time were one of the strongest Indian confederacies and were expert bowmen, but not canoe men. They would move to the broad plain beyond the Mississippi each year for a summer hunt, and in the winter they would spend four or five months on a southern chase - returning to Kaskaskia, their beautiful city of arbor-like cabins, covered with double waterproof mats. Each cabin as a rule would contain four fires, around each of which the families would gather. The population of their city in its best day was about 8,000 people.

Although they were constantly at war and were greatly addicted to vice, they listened to the earnest teaching of Marquette and other French missionaries, were finally converted, and were much improved in their condition. The name of their chief was Chicago. He visited France in 1700, and was highly esteemed and entertained by the French government officials.

A little over 200 years ago, in the summer of 1680, the Iroquois Indians made an attack upon the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes of the Illinois Confederation. They drove Lieutenant Tonti, who was under the command of La Salle, from Creve le Cour Fort, near the outlet of Peoria Lake. The chief object of the Iroquois was to destroy the Illinois Indians and lay claim to their lands, as they had done to those belonging to many other tribes, always fighting was their way and leaving their battlefields - which extended from the Atlantic coast to the Wabash River, and from the Ohio River to even north of the Great Lakes - strewn with their victims. It was with a great slaughter that they conquered the hitherto strong and important people, laid waste to their great city of Kaskaskia, and drove them from their wigwams to wander in broken bands over their broad domain. Many of the Illinois were murdered and their homes burned to ashes, while as many as 900 were taken as prisoners. The young corn in the field was cut down and burned, the pits which contained the products of the previous year were opened and their contents scattered with wanton waste; the graves had been robber of their dead and the bodies dragged forth to be devoured by buzzards. In the center of all this devastation and ruin, the spoilers, says LaSalle, had built for themselves a lodge and covered it with human bones and the scalps of the Illinois. A few of the lodge that had escaped the fire and remained standing, were adorned with human skulls, thus presenting a most frightful scene, with all these ghastly relics, where only a few days previous had stood the proud city of the Illinois, the largest ever built by Northern Natives.

Its extent being over a mile square; it was a lovely place in the bosom of a beautiful valley, and was well chosen for a home. Just un the opposite side of the river stood the sandstone bluff, fall and stately, its summit overlooking the broad valley of many wooded islands, up and down the river, and the swift current of the water rushing along at its base as it had done for thousands of years gone by. Well had the Illinois looked to this majestic rock as a fit place of refuge in case of danger. But little did they think that it would remain after them as a monument of their last battle, and that it should be the scene of the final extermination of their proud and powerful people. From this great battle the Illinois never fully recovered. They were constantly at war with the Iroquois and Sioux, and later with the Pottawatomies. The allies of Pontiac, the Ottawa chief, after the assassination of that chieftain by the hands of the Illinois, nearly exterminated the latter - a part of them taking refuge on the sandstone bluff. When first visited by the whites, the Pottawatomie numbered nearly 12,000 souls, and were divided into five bands; in 1850 eighty-four of them remained.

In the winter of 1680-81, being the next winter after the destruction of the City of Kaskaskia, LaSalle formed a plan of a colony on the sandstone bluff. The design was to include French and Indians of various tribes as a protective coalition against the dreaded Iroquois. The colony was left in charge of Lieutenant Tonti.

LaSalle made a trip down the Mississippi River, and, when he reached its mouth, on August 6, 1682, he took formal possession of all the lands drained by the great river in the name of his sovereign, Louis XIV, of France, and called the new acquisition Louisiana. After his return trip up the river he and his Lieutenant Tonti, began, in December 1682, the work of clearing the bluff to build a fort, which was afterwards called Fort St. Louis. The weather was bitter cold, and the wind blew terrifically; but they worked steadily on, and soon had completed a number of storehouses and dwellings, all of which were enclosed in a stockade. On the bottoms around the rock were domiciled 20,000 Iroquois souls, 4,000 of whom where warriors. In March 1684, the Iroquois attacked this rocky citadel; but after a six-day fight, withdrew, taking with them a few prisoners, who afterwards made their escape. Tonti commanded Fort St. Louis upon the rock, until 1702, when, it is said, he was forcibly displaced from command on account of some alleged irregularities; after which he wandered the southern wilds until about 1748, when, shattered in health, he returned to the scene of his former glory - dying in the fort the following spring, and being buried on the west side of the rock.

It has been stated that after his death, the Frenchmen in control of the fort treated the Indians maidens so scurrile that their fathers and brothers destroyed the fort and drove away the Frenchmen. Charlevoix says that in 1721 he saw palisades upon the rock, which he supposed were built by the Illinois; but no authentic account is given of the rock being used as a fort other than from 1682 to 1719, previous to the last battle of the Illinois, at which time it was merely used as a place of refuge, and not of fortification.

Patrick Kennedy, who made a voyage up the Illinois River in 1773, speaks of the French residing on an island at Joliet and of their making salt from salt ponds on the south bank of the Illinois River, opposite Buffalo Rock, which is about three miles above the sandstone bluff. Some of the principle actors in the Black Hawk War of 1832 were considered by the whites to be of French and Indian ancestry; and there are families living yet in the Illinois Valley that trace their lineage as far back as to the days of Tonti.

The earliest account I find of the Pottawatomie Indians south of Lake Michigan is in 1674, when Marquette met them on his return with LaSalle from the Mississippi, on a part of which journey he was attended by a band of Illinois and also a band of Pottawatomie Indians. So far as I can learn, they were the first of their tribe who ever saw the country south of Lake Michigan, as their former home was about Green Bay. In the following year, 1675, Marquette, after spending the winter in Chicago, established at Kaskaskia on Easter Sunday, his mission, which was called by the zealous founder, 'The Immaculate Conception." This mission was continued until 1690, when it was moved to Southern Kaskaskia, on the Kaskaskia River, which empties into the Mississippi River in St. Clair County.

From 1675 it is probable that the Pottawatomies emigrated very fast from their old homes on Green Bay into the more hospitable regions south of Lake Michigan. As they were found in their southern homes in different bands under different names and leaders, the probabilities are that they left in parties. The number of the Pottawatomies is hard to determine; but as near as I can discover, there must have been 1,800 of them at the time of the assembly of the Algonquin Confederation at Niagara in 1783, when there were 450 Pottawatomie warriors present. The fraternal relations existing between the Pottawatomies and Ottawas were of the most harmonious character; that they lived almost as one people, and were joint owners in their hunting grounds. Their relations were scarcely less intimate and friendly with the different bands of the Sioux tribe. Nor were the Chippewas more strangers to the Pottawatomies and Ottawas than the later with each other; they claimed interest in the lands occupied to a certain extent by all jointly, so that all three tribes joined I the treaty for the first sale of their lands ever made to the United States, which was made in Chicago in 1821, when the tribes named except the Sioux, ceded to the United States 5,000,000 acres in Michigan. Northern Illinois was particularly the possession of the Pottawatomies; but as before stated, it is impossible to fix the time when they first settled here. They undoubtedly came by themselves, encroaching at first upon Illinois tribe, advancing more and more, sometimes by good-natured tolerance, and sometimes by actual violence. But they did not come into exclusive possession until the final extermination of the Illinois tribes, which must have been sometime between 1766 and 1770, when all but eleven were destroyed in their siege of 'Starved Rock.' The only authentic account of the great tragedy that is obtainable is from Meachelle, an old Pottawatomie chief, through Judge J.D. Canton, who was an intimate acquaintance of the chief.

Meachelle associated his earliest recollections with their occupancy of the country. He remembered well the Battle of 'Starved Rock' and the final extinction of the Illinois tribe of Indians. He was present at the siege and final catastrophes; and, although but a boy at the time, and used to the war and bloodshed that was continually going on between the tribes, the terrible event made such a strong impression upon his young mind that it ever remained fresh and vivid.

The cause of the dreadful destruction of the Illinois tribe is attributed to the death of Pontiac, the great Ottawa chief, which occurred in 1766. He was the idol of his people and was beloved and obeyed scarcely less by the Pottawatomies. They believed the Illinois Indians were at least accessory to his murder, and so held them responsible: consequently the Ottawas and Pottawatomies, in connection with the Chippewas united all their forces in an attack upon those whose deadly enemies they had now become.

The Illinois Indians had never fully recovered from the great catastrophe they had suffered nearly a century before at the hands of the terrible Iroquois. Their spirit and their courage seemed broken, and they submitted to encroachments from the north by their more enterprising neighbors - with an ill will 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 whom they regarded as their actual enemies, in an underhanded and treacherous way. In the war thus waged by the allies against the Illinois the latter suffered disaster after disaster, till the sole remnant 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 River, now found sufficient space upon the half acre of ground, which crowns the summit of Starved Rock.

As the sides are perpendicular, except on the southeast, where one may ascend with difficulty by means of a sort of natural stairway, and where some of the steps are only a few inches wide and as much as three feet in height. Not more than two persons can ascend abreast, and ten mean could easily repel 10,000 with the means of warfare then at their command. Of late, as was probably the case when Lieutenant Tonti commanded Fort St. Louis upon the rock, a broad stairway has been erected over the worst places, so that it may be easily ascended by tourists.

The length of time that the Illinois were confined upon the rock is hard to determine: but it is easy to imagine that they had not prepared provisions enough for a very extended encampment, and that their enemies depended upon their lack of the same, which we can readily appreciate must occur soon to a savage people who rarely anticipate the future by storing up supplies. On the north or river side the upper rock overhangs the water somewhat, and tradition tells us how the confederates places themselves in canoes under the cornice like rocks, and cut the thongs of the besieged when they lowered their vessels to obtain water from the rive, and so reduced them by thirst as well sa by starvation. At last the time came when the unfortunate remnants of the once honored Illinois nation could hold out no longer, and 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.

The horrible scene that then ensued is easier to imagine than to describe. No quarter was asked and none was given. For a time the howling of the tempest was drowned by the yells of the combatants and the shrieks of their dying victims. It is difficult to judge of the number of the Illinois that were quartered upon the rock. During this awful battle the braves fell one by one fighting like very fiends; and fearfully did they avenge themselves upon their enemies. The few women and children, whom famine had not left but enfeebled skeletons, fell easily victims to the war clubs of the terrible savages, who deemed it almost as much a glory to slaughter the emaciated women and helpless children as to strike down the men who were able to make resistance with arms in their hands. They were bent upon the utter extermination of their hated enemies, and most successfully did they bend their savage energies to the blood task.

Soon the victims were stretched upon the sloping ground south and west of the rock, there their bodies lay stark upon the sand, which had been thrown up by the wild prairie winds. The wails of the feeble and the shouts of the strong had ceased to fret the air, and the night wind's mournful sighs through the neighboring pines sounded like a requiem, the flash of the lightening in the dark and the clouded sky lit up the awful scene like tall funeral tapers. Here was enacted the fitting finale to the work of death which had been commenced by the destruction of Kaskaskia - scarcely 3 miles away on the opposite side of the river - nearly a century before by the still more savage and terrible Iroquois.

Yet all were not destroyed for, in the darkness and confusion of the fight, eleven of the most athletic warriors broke through the besieging lines. From their high perch on the isolated rock they had marked the little nook below into which their enemies had moored at least a part of their canoes, and to those they rushed with headlong speed, unnoticed by their foes. They threw themselves into the boats, and rowed hurriedly down the rapids below. They had been trained to use the power of the paddle and the canoe, and knew every intricacy of the channel, so that they could safely navigate it even in the dark and blusterous night. They knew their deadly enemy would soon be in their wake, and there was no safe refuge for them short of St. Louis. They had undoubtedly been without food for many days, and had no provisions with them to sustain their waning strength; and yet it was certain death to stop by the way. Their only hope was pressing forward by night and day, without a moments pause - scarcely looking back, yet ever fearing that their pursuers would make their appearance from around the point they had last left behind them. If they could reach St. Louis, there they would be safe; if overtaken they would perish, as had the rest of their tribe. It was truly a race for life, and as life is sweeter than revenge, we may safely presume that the pursued were impelled to greater exertions than the pursuers.

Till the morning light revealed that their canoes were gone the confederates believed that their sanguinary work had been so thoroughly done that not a living soul of the Illinois people remained. But, as soon as the escape was discovered, a hot pursuit was commenced. But 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 protection and a generous supply of food, which their famished condition so much required. This had barely been done when their enemies appeared and fiercely demanded their victims that no drop of human blood might longer circulate in the veins of their hated enemies. This was refused, and they retired with threat with threats of future vengeance upon the fort - which, however, they never had the means of executing.

After their enemies had gone the Illinois how never afterward claimed that name thanked their white friends for their kind entertainment, and, full of sorrow that words cannot express, the slowly paddled their way across the river to seek a new home and new friends among the tribes who then occupied the southern part of Illinois, and who listened to their sad story with sympathy and kindness. This is the last we really know of the last of the Illinois. 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 in the past all are so proud, and as to whose future the hopes of all are so sanguine.

Starved Rock State Park
We invite you to visit a collection of sites within the Starved Rock area to observe and learn about the human history, the past and present workings of the river, and the geologic features that formed and continue to shape the region.

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