Of the historic Indians, the Illinois Confederacy was first in importance and one of the oldest. It was of Algonquian linguistic stock, and consisted of six tribes--the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamoroa. Once the Illinois Confederacy occupied most of the Illinois country, but the early Jesuits found that there had been vast movements of all the tribes of the region due to wars with the Iroquois. Closely related to them, if not at one time actually apart of the Confederacy, were the Miami, who dwelt for a time in the region south of Chicago.
The Indians in the Confederacy called themselves Iliniwek (superior men), and indeed were physically well-built, especially the men. They were friendly and talkative, but most of the early explorers reported them rather shiftless and treacherous. In war they were excellent archers; they also used a war club and a kind of lance with dexterity; but their proud title of "superior men" was not earned in war, for they were often defeated by the Iroquois and the northern lake tribes, sometimes by smaller numbers than their own.
Father Allouez first met a party of Illinois at La Pointe, Wisconsin, in 1667, when they came to trade at that post. Three years later he found a number of them at the Mascouten village on the upper Fox River, from which point they were setting out to join their tribes then living on the west side of the Mississippi. It was also on the Iowa side of the river that Father Marquette first encountered the Kaskaskia tribe which proved so friendly; on his return he met the same band at its ancestral village of seventy-four cabins on the Illinois River near Peoria. The estimates of the number of the Illinois vary. Father Hennepin estimated that they numbered 6,500 in 1680; Father Sebastian Rasles gave an estimate of 9,000 in 1692. The Kaskaskia village on the Illinois near Lake Peoria was an important gathering place for all the tribes. When La Salle visited the town in 1680, it had 460 lodges, each housing several families. He reported that the annual assemblies of the tribes were attended by 6,000 to 8,000.
The lodges of this town topped the banks of the Illinois for more than a mile. Corn, beans, and pumpkins matted the adjacent meadows, and maize, planted in the spring, was given special attention by the squaws. When the maize crop was gathered, it was usually stored in pits, often under the houses. Pumpkins were sliced into discs and dried. When the work of harvesting was over, the tribes began to file westward for the serious task of obtaining enough meat to last through the winter and early spring. The men stalked and killed the game; the women dried the meat and carried it back to the village. The Indians' diet was further supplemented by wild fowl, nuts, roots, berries, and fish, which they speared in the lakes and streams.
The usual totems of the Illinois tribes were the crane, beaver, white hind, and tortoise, although the Kaskaskia sometimes used the feather of an arrow, or two arrows fitted like a St. Andrew's cross. Each village had several leaders, each of whom controlled from thirty to fifty young men. A reed mat with the feathers of various birds wrapped in it was carried on the warpath by the leader. The De Gannes Memoir, the most accurate description of the Illinois, probably written by the Sieur Deliette, nephew of Tonti, notes that though women and children captives were spared as slaves, the male captives were tortured by fire, their bodies cut open, and their hearts eaten raw. Mothers then hastened to dip the feet of their male children in the blood of the thoracic cavity.
The Illinois, according to one account, did not immediately bury their dead; bodies were wrapped in skins, and attached by the foot and head to a tree. After the flesh had rotted away, the bones were gathered up and buried in rude sepulchres. The De Gannes Memoir, however, declares that the Illinois buried their dead in shallow trenches lined with planks. Both kinds of graves have been found in Illinois. Grave gifts for the deceased, to accompany him on his journey to the "land beyond the milky way," consisted of an earthen pot, his bow and arrows, a handful of corn and tobacco, and often a calumet pipe.
The De Gannes Memoir further states that men frequently had several wives. As all persons in the village addressed one another in terms of kinship, the sisters, aunts, and nieces of a man's wife were nirimoua, and they in turn called him by the same name; if a brave were a successful hunter, he could marry all the women thus related to him. When a man died, his wife was prohibited from marrying for a year; the penalty for breaking this tribal law was death, after which the offender's scalp was raised over the lodge of her husband's family. Many shamans, or medicine men, lived among the tribes, and attempted to cure illnesses by chants and ceremonies which they professed to have learned through visions; once a year they held a colorful dance at which they gave a preview of their nostrums and powers. In their leisure time, the warriors played a brutal form of lacrosse, or gambled at a game of matching odd and even with sticks. So earnestly did the players engage in the latter that they often gambled away their female relatives.
According to the De Gannes Memoir and the reports of Father Hennepin, the Illinois built their cabins like long arbors, and covered them with a double mat of reeds, which the women gathered from the rivers and wove into rectangles sometimes 60 feet long. Each house had four or five fires and accommodated eight to ten families. Some of the villages were enclosed within palisades; others were set in the open with a good view of the surrounding country.
About 1680 the Iroquois descended upon the Illinois tribes, wiped out the principal villages, and pursued some of the conquered bands down the Illinois River to the Mississippi. There they attacked the Tamoroa, and took 700 of their women and children prisoners. In 1682 La Salle built Fort St. Louis at Starved Rock and gathered about it 3,000 warriors of the various Algonquian tribes in a confederation against the Iroquois; 1,200 Of these were Illinois. Twenty years later, we find the Illinois dispersed again; Peoria, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia were centers for the tribes of those names; the Tamoroa were associated now with the Kaskaskia, and the Michigamea lived near Fort de Chartres on the Mississippi. In 1729 Illinois warriors helped the French subdue the Natchez, and later fought in the Chickasaw War. Though they became involved in the Conspiracy of Pontiac at the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, they had by then taken over many vices of the white man and had lost much of their vigor. When Pontiac was killed by a Peoria Indian near Cahokia in 1769, his tribes--the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi--descended from the north and east upon the Illinois and almost annihilated them. A widespread but unauthenticated legend relates that a band of fugitives took refuge on Starved Rock, where they were besieged by the Potawatomi. Their provisions failed; the cords of buckets they dropped to the river for water were cut by the enemy; finally, decimated by thirst and hunger, they were attacked and killed.
In 1778 the Kaskaskia numbered 310 and lived in a small village three miles north of Kaskaskia. The Peoria and Michigamea lived a few miles farther up the river and together numbered 170. By this time all had become worthless and demoralized through the use of liquor. In 1800 there were only 150 Illinois surviving. In 1833 they sold their holdings in Illinois and moved west of the Mississippi; by 1855 the consolidated Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, and Piankashaw, living on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, numbered 149, with much admixture of white blood.
In the seventeenth century, enemies other than the Iroquois came to make war on the Illinois and settle on their land. The Sauk and Fox moved down from Wisconsin to the northwestern part of the State and claimed all the territory between the Mississippi and the Rock Rivers. Originally they had lived along the St. Lawrence; subsequently, harassed by the Iroquois, they moved to Wisconsin. Father Allouez set up a mission among them at Green Bay in 1669. After defeating the Mascoutens near the mouth of the Iowa River, they formed an alliance with the Potawatomi and forced the Illinois to move southward. Their defeat during the Black Hawk War in 1832, when they resisted the encroachments of the white men, caused their ultimate removal from the State.
By the time the French explorers came, the Winnebago sometimes drifted down from Wisconsin into northern Illinois, the Kickapoo had moved into the area at the foot of Lake Michigan, and the Mascouten, friendly to the Illinois, lived in the great grassy plains east of the Mississippi. Along the Wabash dwelt the Piankashaw, and around the southern and western shores of Lake Michigan stretched the hunting grounds of the Potawatomi, a particularly warlike tribe, who, in the Conspiracy of Pontiac, annihilated the garrison at St. Joseph, and in 1812 committed the Fort Dearborn massacre. Associated with the Potawatomi were the Chippewa and Ottawa, among the most energetic and powerful tribes of the Northwest; they lived on both sides of the Wabash. At one time the Shawnee dwelt in the southeastern part of the State.