Native American Relations in Illinois before Statehood

The Trapper's Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller

When the French first encountered Native Americans in Illinois in 1673, they developed trade and community relationships. Some French men married Native American women, blending cultures in Nouvelle-France. French authorities and colonists also acquired enslaved Native Americans from tribes through diplomacy and trade, encouraging tribes to participate in enslavement by increasing raids on their enemies.

Numerous tribes moved through the region including the Shawnee and the Kaskaskia, both of whom interacted with the French. The Kaskaskia had a village around 1700 in Randolph County known today as the Guebert site and were heavily involved in trading with the French. Along the Ohio, the French encouraged the Shawnee to settle in the area of Old Shawnee town to help them control river traffic through the region. The Mascouten hunters who supplied the tannery of Charles Juchereau de Saint-Denys appear to have left their mark on the region by painting the only known bison painting in Illinois at a site known as Buffalo Rock, which is along the road from Massac to Kaskaskia.

Engraved illustration of Pontiac's Conspiracy by Alfred Bobbett

Allied tribes fought with the French against the British during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. The Treaty of Paris gave most French land east of the Mississippi River to Britain. When British soldiers attempted to take over the French forts in 1763, Native American allies of the French rose up, seizing many of the smaller forts.

The British were unable to enter Illinois until 1765 because the Ottawa leader, Pontiac, had retreated to southern Illinois during that period, holding their advances for two years. After he was murdered in 1765, the British took control of Kaskaskia.

Fur traders in Canada, 1777, from a cartouche by William Faden

In order to protect the valuable fur trade, Britain made treaties with the tribes. Although American colonists were eager to acquire land in the west, Britain issued a royal decree forbidding settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in an effort to maintain peace.

Defying the order, many settlers pushed west, trespassing on traditional Native American hunting grounds and coming into conflict with tribes, particularly the Shawnee in what is now Kentucky. As the American Revolutionary War loomed with increasing unrest among the colonies, British commanders received orders to encourage and supply Native American incursions on frontier settlers.

The colony of Virginia fought back, forming a frontier militia in 1774, six months prior to the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Continuing attacks spurred young George Rogers Clark to capture British forts surrounding southern Illinois in 1778.

Black and white image of a color painting by Ezra Winter depicting George Rogers Clark in council with tribes at Cahokia

Clark had learned about Native American customs while surveying on the frontier. After capturing Cahokia in July 1778, Clark invited Native American leaders to a council for peace talks. Far ranging tribes attended the council including Chippewa, Kaskaskia, Miami bands, and small tribes in Illinois. Clark declared that the British had lied to the tribes and explained that the Revolutionary War would bring freedom, giving them the choice to accept peace or fight him in war. Around a dozen tribal leaders agreed to no longer help the British.

Clark decimated enemy tribes in later campaigns. When British allied Shawnee warriors went on hunting expeditions in autumn, Clark attacked their villages, burning homes and crops so they would have neither shelter nor food during the winter. In 1782 and 1786, as a brigadier general, Clark led expeditions against Native Americans who continued raiding. Clark was later appointed an Indian commissioner, advising on Native American affairs.

Following the Revolutionary War, settlement north of the Ohio River grew, overrunning Native American homelands and threatening their way of life. By 1800, there were only about thirty thousand Native Americans living in Illinois, and attacks on settlers in Southern Illinois were few relative to other regions. When they did occur, settlers took revenge.

Engraving from a drawing by General Georges-Henri-Victor Collot illustrating an Indian of the Nation of Kaskaskia, circa 1796

Jealousy between tribes discouraged alliances that might have delayed American settlement, and Native Americans were soon pushed out of the state. Even the peaceful Kaskaskia tribe, who controlled land stretching from the Mississippi River to Murphysboro, was chased out by Fox rivals. The legacy of the Kaskaskia is preserved in the town of Du Quoin, which was named for their part-French chief, Jean Baptiste Ducoigne. The Kaskaskia voluntarily moved to a reservation in Jackson County’s Sand Ridge Township with remnants of other tribes in 1803. Thirty years later, they moved west and merged with the Peoria tribe.

Portrait of Tenskwatawa by Henry Inman

The Shawnee, who remained allies of Britain, were removed after the War of 1812. During that war, Shawnee chief Tecumseh organized several tribes to retain hunting grounds in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. His father had died in battle with Virginia militia in 1774. The name Shawneetown commemorates their history in Southern Illinois.

Tecumseh was aided by his brother Tenskwatawa, a powerful speaker and religious leader who established Prophet’s Town in the Indiana Territory in 1808. Although relations between the U.S. and Prophet's Town were originally peaceful, Tenskwatawa disagreed with the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne in which Native American chiefs ceded three million acres.

When Tecumseh left Prophet's Town to recruit more tribes in the south, territorial governor William Henry Harrison led U.S. troops to disperse the settlement. Tenskwatawa ordered his warriors to attack on November 7, 1811, promising protection from his special powers, but there were many casualties on both sides in what came to be known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. After the Native Americans left, Harrison burned Prophet’s Town, discrediting Tenskwatawa. During the War of 1812, the brothers allied themselves with the British.

Tecumseh probably traveled through Marion on his way to recruit warriors. After Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, Tenskwatawa escaped to Canada, where he was supported by a British pension.

Southern Illinois later witnessed the forced removal of the Cherokees during the Trail of Tears as they were marched across the state from Golconda to Jonesboro in the bitter winter of 1838-1839.

Native American Relations