Starting in 1835, under terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Fox Valley’s Native Americans were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River.
But that meant the region’s white settlers lived alongside their Native American neighbors for roughly a decade. How were relations between the two groups? An honest appraisal would have to say those relations were mixed.
By the time whites began settling the region between Chicago and the Fox River Valley, the area was mostly populated by bands of the Three Fires Confederacy. About 1745, reports that the interrelated tribes of the Illinois Confederacy had become so weakened they could no longer claim control of that area prompted the Three Fires member tribal bands to move south from their current homelands in Michigan and Wisconsin to fill the vacuum created by the Illinois’ difficulties.
A cultural mixture of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa tribal bands, Three Fires villages soon dotted the banks of the Fox, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Illinois rivers. The member tribal groups had been hostile to the United States until the end of the War of 1812, after which they determined to live in peace with Americans.
Settlement in the Fox Valley region really didn’t begin until about 1826 when Robert Bearsford’s family moved up the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa and settled in modern Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. Bearsford’s claim was reportedly at the southernmost point of the grove of mixed hardwood trees.
By 1829, a couple other families had moved to the Big Grove area including former French Canadian fur trader Vetal Vermet’s family as well as American Frederick Countryman and his Potawatomi wife, En-do-ga.
In August of that year, whiskey provided a trigger for a relatively violent incident between the two cultures. Peter Lamsett, nicknamed Peter Specie by the settlers for his policy of only accepting coins—specie—in payment for the goods and services he sold, brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice Alexander Doyle at Chicago (then governed from Peoria County) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians.
Specie, a French Canadian who had engaged in the fur trade before concentrating on providing various services to new settlers, was on his way from Chicago with his ox cart to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Countryman and a half-barrel to Vermet at Big Grove when he said he was set upon near the DuPage River by the Potawatomi Chief Half Day and two warriors. He said the Indians took a quantity of alcohol, claiming one of them slashing him with a knife during the scuffle. Specie continued his delivery, but testified he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who, he said, stole more liquor. Specie told Justice Doyle he estimated about 10 gallons of whiskey had been taken. The resolution of Specie’s complaint is missing from the county court records, but the case and Specie’s testimony does suggest some significant tensions between Native Americans and the increasing number of White settlers—even those generally considered sympathetic to the tribes.
The worst clash of the era between the area’s White settlers and Native People was 1832’s Black Hawk War. An influential Sauk warrior, Black Hawk determined to move his band of about 1,500 men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois in the spring of 1832 in violation of government orders. Black Hawk had a long history of opposing White settlement of western Illinois. During the War of 1812, Black Hawk, who had allied himself with the British, out-generaled Illinois militia troops who tried to attack the Sauk Tribe’s main settlement at Rock Island. After that war, Black Hawk still remained attached to British interests to such an extent that the tribal group he led was called the British Band by U.S. officials.
In 1832, the British Band’s return to Illinois caused conflict to break out across northern Illinois. Local tribes people seized on the opportunity to settle some scores. The most violent of these was the Indian Creek Massacre in LaSalle County, where 14 men, women and children at the William Davis claim were killed over Davis’s cruel and violent treatment of local Three Fires people.
A few miles north of Indian Creek, Hollenback’s store at modern Newark was looted and burned, as were the cabins of settlers who had been warned to flee by the Three Fires’ Chief Shabbona. At the William Harris cabin, panic reigned. The family’s horses had bolted meaning the couple, their seven children, and Mrs. Harris’s father, the aged and crippled John Coombs, had to flee on foot. Realizing he’d slow them down, Mr. Coombs told the family, “Leave me to my fate, and save yourselves; I am an old man and can live but a little while at best.” Which they tearfully did, thinking they’d never see him alive again. But when an Indian raiding party arrived at the Harris cabin and saw Mr. Coombs was an invalid, they left him be and passed on to other pickings, not exactly the picture of ruthlessness we expect to see during a war.
And as for the perpetrators of the Indian Creek Massacre, the suspects were arrested after the war and tried in Ottawa. But since the survivors of the attack, including Sylvia and Rachel Hall, teenage sisters seized and held for ransom, could not positively identify which warriors had attacked the cabin, the charges against the defendants were ruled unproven and they were released, which seems an interesting comment on the attitude towards justice, even on the frontier that was northern Illinois at that time.
After the war, until the Fox Valley’s Native People were removed, relations seemed to be good. Early settler and eventual orchardist Smith Minkler’s recollection of visiting the claim of William Wilson, Oswego’s first settler, in late 1833 as recounted in the Rev. E.W. Hicks’1877 history of the county might have been typical: “Mr. Minkler was down there [at Oswego] one day when Wilson’s boys were astride of an Indian pony, and the Indians with wild shouts of glee were pulling it along the trail. It seemed to be great fun for them.”
Shabbona, who had warned the settlers to flee during Black Hawk’s war, was rewarded with a small reserve at the grove west of the Fox River in modern DeKalb County that had been named for him. But he, along with Waubonsee, and the other chiefs and families, were all ordered west anyway. The first group left Chicago in 1835 for a grueling trip first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas that rivaled in tragedy the famed “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes. Other groups left in 1836, but some of those who’d been removed hated where they’d been situated and filtered back to northern Illinois. It wasn’t until 1837 that the last of the Three Fires were finally, permanently removed.
Even after that, Shabbona returned for visits, living on his land off and on until it was simply sold out from underneath him, something that is still in litigation to this day. Virtually homeless, the old chief’s friends bought him a small house where he spent the last two years of his life. The highlight of that period was at Ottawa on Aug. 21, 1858 when he was invited to sit on the dais during the first Lincoln and Douglas Debate and when he was able to greet his former Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln.
Like most of history, the era when settlers and Native People lived together in Illinois’ Fox River Valley is complicated, an era when both sides had something to learn from and teach to each other. And that’s perhaps something worth thinking about throughout November as the nation celebrates this year’s Native American Heritage Month.
2 responses to “The era when the Fox River Valley’s Native People and settlers lived along side each other”
Interesting mention of Cheif “Half Day” since I’ve seen the theory that the place called “Half Day” (which also happens to be along the Des Plaines River) is called that because that is the point where you’d be half way between Chicago and Milwaukee.
Thanks for reading History on the Fox! According to “Illinois Place Names,” Illinois State Historical Society, Occasional Publications No. 55, compiled by James S. Adams, 1989, the community of Half Day is indeed named after Chief Half Day.