After writing, a few weeks ago, about the Kankakee Torrent that formed the modern Illinois River Valley, I got to thinking about Starved Rock again. The Rock and most of the area now comprising Starved Rock State Park was purchased by the State of Illinois back in 1911, the state’s second state park (Fort Massac State Park at Illinois’ southern tip was the state’s first). And the park’s history is part and parcel of the colonial history of northern Illinois, something that’s fascinated me for a long time.
For the more than a century since its acquisition, Starved Rock near Ottawa and Utica has been a favorite weekend leisure destination for residents of northern Illinois. The bluff, comprised of St. Peter sandstone, soars 125-feet above the surface of the Illinois River. Created by the Kankakee Torrent, the bluff is the main attraction at the park, but it is joined by the classic old Starved Rock Lodge (and its excellent restaurant) and the miles of hiking trails that wind through spectacular canyons that have, over thousands of years, been eroded out of the surrounding sandstone by rushing water after rains and the annual snow melt.
Although the Starved Rock area has been one of northern Illinois’ premier tourist attractions for more than a century, I’d guess less than one in 10 Illinois residents have any idea that the rock itself and the rugged terrain surrounding it was once the site of the largest congregation of Indian tribes ever gathered, or that the top of the rock was the site of the first permanent French settlement in what is today Illinois.
In 1673, when geographer and cartographer Louis Jolliet and linguist and missionary Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois River on their way back to Canada during their epic investigation into the course of the Mississippi River, they became the first Europeans to see Starved Rock. At least they were the first ones to do so legally. It’s not unlikely that renegade courier du boise—the French frontiersmen who lived among Native Americans—knew of the site’s existence well before the two French explorers arrived.
Jolliet and Marquette found a large village of the Illinois Confederacy, named Kaskaskia (not to be confused with the later French village near St. Louis), across the river from the shear sandstone bluff.
A few years later, when Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, obtained a trade monopoly for the Illinois Country, he immediately saw the possibilities Starved Rock offered. The French called the sheer sandstone bluff simply The Rock, and it became the linchpin for the first French settlement in northern Illinois. LaSalle and his right hand man, Henri de Tonti, built a strong fort atop the rock, effectively controlling passage up and down the Illinois River. LaSalle named the installation Fort St. Louis, in honor of his patron, the king of France.
The Rock’s steep sides provided excellent protection for the fort, and since the base of the bluff is washed by the Illinois River, water was no problem in case of siege.
Eventually, LaSalle persuaded thousands of local Indians to locate around The Rock by offering them the protection of French arms. It was a timely intervention because the Iroquois Confederacy, based in upstate New York, was engaged in an unprecedented series of wars of conquest aimed at solidifying their control over the Great Lakes fur trade. Historians have come to call this series of multi-year conflicts the Beaver Wars.
Just a few years before LaSalle arrived, Iroquois raiding parties had driven the related tribes of the Illinois Confederacy west of the Mississippi. By the time LaSalle established his post atop The Rock, tribes had begun to trickle back into Illinois from areas to which they had been driven by the Iroquois’ ferocious assault. Not only did the Iroquois attack and kill thousands, but they also dug up Native American cemeteries and defiled the dead. It was total war, and it’s possible that LaSalle and Tonti’s timely arrival in Illinois saved some tribes from the total annihilation suffered by other tribes such as the Neutrals which lived north of the Great Lakes.
By about 1701, however, conditions around The Rock had changed. LaSalle was dead, killed by his own men during an abortive attempt to colonize the Mississippi delta—bad navigation led him to Galveston Bay in modern Texas instead-—and the huge concentration of tribes around The Rock had depleted the area’s farmland, firewood, and game.
As a result, Tonti, who was now in charge of LaSalle’s Illinois colony, decided to move the entire operation south to Peoria Lake, called Pimitoui by the local tribes. Eventually, the French retired all the way south and west to the Mississippi River, helped along by the continued hostility of the Iroquois and their local allies such as the Fox Tribe. Along the banks of the Mississippi, the French established permanent villages at Cahokia, Prairie du Rocher, and Kaskaskia. Their descendants, greatly reduced in numbers and power, were still there, farming and shipping grain to New Orleans, when Col. George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militia arrived during the Revolutionary War.
Meanwhile, The Rock was inhabited intermittently, both by Native People and by French traders. At some point, the fort burned, possibly due to arson by Indians glad to see the Europeans leave.
At the end of the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 1760s, the British began moving into Illinois as they took over the former French possessions, This angered many long-time Indian allies of the French, most notably Pontiac, an Ottawa organizational and military genius. Pontiac’s War, whose purpose was to restore French control over the Illinois Country, nearly threw the British out of the area north and west of the Ohio River (later called the Northwest Territory). But eventually superior British military force won out.
After the war, Pontiac was murdered at Peoria, reportedly by a member of the Illinois Confederacy. This enraged Pontiac’s supporters who still venerated his leadership. They reportedly besieged the killer and his tribal relatives atop the rock, where, the story goes, they were either starved or killed or committed suicide by jumping into the Illinois River. Thus The Rock became known as Starved Rock.
Today, little of Starved Rock’s rich and remarkably long history is immediately visible, although the park’s visitors’ center does a pretty good job of trying to explain the area’s importance to the colonial history of the state, the region, and the nation.
Assuming the travel and social gathering restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 are eased, you could drive up to Quebec or Montreal and visit French colonial sites, or head east to the Atlantic Coast to delve into the British colonial era or go down to Florida, Louisiana, or Texas and learn about the nation’s Spanish colonial history. Or you could save a lot of your hard-earned money and just drive down Ill. Route 71 to Starved Rock for a taste of French colonial history, Illinois-style.