We took a drive up to Aurora with some friends this past week to both visit a Fox River art exhibit at Aurora University and to listen to a speaker at AU’s Schingoethe Center. It was a very satisfying evening.
The exhibit, open through Dec. 14, is “Joel Sheesley: A Fox River Testimony,” featuring 73 landscapes painted during a two-year period, in all seasons of the year, from West Dundee in the north to Ottawa in the south. A number of scenes Sheesley chose for subjects were familiar, but his vision of those familiar spots makes them look fresh and new, and gave me, at least, a new appreciation of the beauty of our river valley. I highly recommend this exhibit. If you can’t make it, though, don’t worry because it sounds like it may also be coming to the Little White School Museum next spring.
After enjoying view of the valley, we wandered over to the Tapper Recital Hall in the same building to hear “The Power of Place: The Indigenous Peoples of Northeastern Illinois and the Fox River Valley” by Dr. John N. Low of the Ohio State University at Newark, OH.
Low’s an interesting guy. Himself an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, he’s earned a juris doctorate as well as a Ph.D in American Culture and is currently on the OSU faculty.
Chief Leopold Pokagon
My rule of thumb is that it’s a poor day when I don’t learn something new, and Low certainly taught me something new the other evening, namely that all of the members of the Three Fires Confederacy were not forced west by the U.S. Government in 1836. A separate band of 280 individuals, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi named after the chief, Leopold Pokagon, was allowed to stay in southern Michigan and northern Indiana after the Treaty of 1833 extinguished the claims of the rest of the Three Fires’ land in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.
Between 1836 and 1838, the rest of the Three Fires were rounded up and forced west, including two well-known local chiefs, Waubonsie and Shabbona.
Although Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted in 1829. He returned to Illinois in 1837 despite the official removal then going on and lived at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been seized and sold at public auction. This high-handed act has resulted in more than a little legal action over the years, which, as I understand it, isn’t settled yet.
Chief Shabbona, about 1858
The citizens of Ottawa, however, seeing that the old chief’s land had been stolen from him, pooled their resources and bought him a small farm near Seneca in LaSalle County.
Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington, the son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother. Just under 6 feet in height, he was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”
Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely, as it was spelled phonetically. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena.
Pontiac, about 1765. As no portraits of the Ottawa chief are known to exist, this is an artist’s conception.
Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac planned, organized, and carried out 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, which was designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River.
Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, aiming to fill the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois and Indiana where they settled along the Wabash, Kankakee, Illinois, St. Joseph, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.
The three tribal groups mixed freely and frequently. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potawatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an Ottawa, was elevated to chief upon his father-in-law’s death.
The Three Fires were mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British. After the Revolution, British forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military leader Blue Jacket.
Tecumseh, about 1812, in a British Army uniform.
It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won the battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict.
Despite the setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American opposition to U.S. control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the Old Northwest. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, where he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s views, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin recruiting more members for the Wabash Confederacy.
In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.
Chief Waubonsee, about 1840
In 1812, war again broke out between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.
Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois, and after much deliberation, he concluded further opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1825, when the Winnebagos decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities. In return, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove in modern DeKalb County, and where the chief moved his village.
When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful. On the war’s outbreak, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to Chicago. One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potowatomis angered by Davis’s brutal treatment of them.
Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that all Indians were to be removed from Illinois, and most were, with the exception of the Pokagon Band. And, as we saw above, Shabbona.
To give credit where it’s due, though, Shabbona’s friends in LaSalle County showed their appreciation for his efforts to maintain peace, and then to reduce human losses when the Black Hawk War broke out not only by helping him financially after his land had been stolen, but also by treating him as one of the community’s honored citizens.
Ambrotype of Chief Shabbona taken about 1857.
Which brings me to another interesting fact about the folks who lived in the Fox and Illinois River valleys in the 19th Century. The very first Lincoln and Douglas Debate, held during the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois was held at Ottawa. Both Lincoln, representing the new Republican Party, and Douglas, the old-line Democrat, were well known politicians, Lincoln also famed because of his extremely successful legal career. So the crowd on hand to listen to the debate was a big one. The stage set up on the grounds of the LaSalle County Courthouse on the square in Ottawa provided room for the two speakers, plus chairs for local dignitaries. And among those invited luminaries was elderly Chief Shabbona, who by all accounts was warmly greeted by his Black Hawk War comrade, Abe Lincoln, who had served in the Illinois militia during the conflict.
Shabbona lived on his small farm near Seneca until the end of his life on July 17, 1859
What interests me is that just two decades after the Indians had been forcibly removed from Illinois, and less than 25 years after the Black Hawk War itself, Shabbona found himself treated as an honored citizen and local dignitary. That’s something that somehow doesn’t quite fit in with our usual view of how whites treated Indians during that era.
Shabbona is buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery under a marker paid for by donations from his admiring friends and neighbors.
Meanwhile, the Pokagon Band of Potawtomi Indians was not treated as a legitimate part of the Potawatomi Nation or the Three Fires Confederacy because, like Shabbona, they ultimately chose to stay. But following 160 years of struggle, they were finally granted official tribal status in 1994.
These two stories represent just some of the unknown stories about how Native People were treated differently by a disinterested and borderline hostile government and sympathetic local residents. Most, but not all of the Three Fires were forced west on what they came to call the Trail of Death. And most, but not all those forced west never returned. But there were exceptions and those exceptions make for great local history.