Category Archives: Native Americans

The time France tried to make a profit on Illinois bison

Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.

For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.

The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.

It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.

The currency of the North American fur trade was the prime winter beaver pelt.

The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.

While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.

Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.

While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.

American Bison once roamed most of North America. These animals currently live at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington, Illinois, where a bison herd is being recreated.

Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.

Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.

And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.

The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.

Juchereau’s expedition probably traveled from Canada to southern Illinois using big Montreal Canoes like these. Made of birch bard, they were the mainstay cargo vessels of the North American fur trade for some 200 years.

Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.

The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.

From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.

In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.

It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.

The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.

Juchereau’s bison tannery and trading fort was located somewhere along the Ohio River in the Mound City area near the southern tip of Illinois.

Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.

By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.

Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.

Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”

With no birch trees available to build canoes in southern Illinois Juchereau’s men had to build boats to haul the tanned bison hides the operation had accumulated down to the Missssippi’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. They were probably bateaus, flat-bottomed, shallow draft boats favored in areas without sufficient birth trees.

Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.

The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.

It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.

When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.

For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Native Americans, People in History

Maramech Hill area a historical gem—just not the one many believe it to be

Maramech Hill, located between Big Rock and Little Rock creeks just upstream from where the combined streams enter the Fox River, has been a celebrated local historical site for more than a century. Once touted as the site of a climactic battle between colonial French forces and their allies and the Fox Tribe, the area around the hill has become one of Kendall County’s premiere cultural and natural destinations.

Maramech Hill Area

The Maramech Hill area of Kendall County. Click here to enlarge.

Part of the area’s story begins during Illinois’ colonial era.

Warfare between Europeans and Native Americans began almost as soon as Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

In South and Central America, and a portion of southern North America, the Spanish waged a series of very successful wars of extinction against the native populations.

For most of North America, however, the situation was quite different. A series of powerful, adaptable, Indian tribes made the conquest of North America anything but a sure thing. Eventually, however, European numbers and technology won out over the Indians. But it was a tough, generations-long struggle.

For instance, the area that now includes the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia was known as “the dark and bloody ground” long before colonial American frontier settlers began filtering into it.

Maramech Hill site with timber

The Maramech Hill area (between the two creeks), during the settlement era, was surrounded by tall timber as the original survey map from 1838 shows. Click to enlarge.

Claimed as a prime hunting and trapping ground by the native tribes of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Huron people, the region was the location of nearly continuous intertribal warfare. It was warfare made worse when European colonial powers began playing the tribes off against each other in a quest to dominate the trade in furs. By the mid-1760s, the Europeans’ wars against each other had largely been settled in favor of England. English peace efforts included issuing a proclamation declaring a no-go zone for settlers west of a line that roughly ran along the peaks of the Appalachian chain. That effort failed spectacularly as American colonials flooded across the mountains to settle the region, touching off even more warfare with and between the tribes. A “dark and bloody ground,” indeed.

But it’s not so well known that nearly a century before those events took place, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan could have been accurately described as a dark and bloody ground as well, primarily because of a decades-long war between the French colonial government and the Fox Tribe.

The Foxes call themselves Meskwaki, or people of the red earth. The French, after encountering the tribe, referred to them as the Outagami or the Renards—French for fox. The tribe was first recorded living along the St. Lawrence River in modern Ontario. But warfare resulting from side effects of the fur trade—primarily conflict with the Huron Tribe—pushed the Foxes west, first to lower Michigan and then, eventually, to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. So the Foxes arrived in our region with built-in animosity towards the French as well as a favorable feeling towards the Iroquois, deadly enemies of both the Hurons and the French.

Through that series of wars and forced relocation, the Foxes became a pugnacious people. Part of the great Algonquian-speaking majority of Native tribes in northern North America, they were members of a linguistic subgroup with the Sauks and Kickapoos.

After being driven out of eastern Michigan by the Ojibwas, the Foxes were involved in fairly constant warfare with that tribe. The Foxes also engaged in sharp battles with the Sioux in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The Illinois, Potawatomis, the Miamis, and several other tribes in the upper Midwest were also often at odds with the Foxes.

Franquelin map color

Franquelin’s map of LaSalle’s colony in 1684 shows what early 20th Century advocate John F. Steward believed was Maramech Hill near Plano.

The warfare was bad for the business of the fur trade (especially their efforts to trade with the Sioux) and the French tried to stop it by weighing in on the side of the Foxes’ numerous enemies. This led the Foxes to cultivate ties with the powerful and ruthless Iroquois Confederacy, who were friends of the British and implacable enemies of the French and their Algonquian-speaking Native allies.

The Foxes’ actions to become the middlemen for the fur trade west of southern Lake Michigan—and to deny French firearms to the Sioux—resulted in denying the use of the strategic and economically valuable portage between the upper Fox River of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River to French trading interests. Instead, French traders had to use the longer and far more difficult Chicago Portage. And if that wasn’t bad enough, cozying up to British interests eventually persuaded the French that the Foxes had to be destroyed.

In 1710, a large group of Foxes—not the entire tribe—agreed to move adjacent to the French fort at Detroit, ostensibly to live under the protection of the French military. However, given the Foxes’ long animosity toward the French and their Indian allies, the Foxes were soon—and predictably—embroiled with disputes against French interests. In 1712, the disputes led to a Fox siege of the French fort, with the Foxes heavily and skillfully fortified inside their own camp. Eventually, Indian allies of the French arrived to lift the siege and to besiege the Foxes. The stalemate lasted nearly a month until the group of Foxes, out of food and water, attempted to escape during a thunderstorm. They were unsuccessful, and virtually the entire band was destroyed.

The rest of the Fox Tribe, not surprisingly, was infuriated. They retaliated by killing French traders and several members of the tribes allied with France. At the same time, the Foxes mounted a diplomatic offensive, and concluded a treaty with their old enemies, the Sioux, to eliminate the threat of an attack on them from the west.

Kee-Shes-Wa Fox Warrior

Kee-Shes-Wa, a Meskwaki chief, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

In response to the Foxes’ military actions, in 1715, the French attempted to launch a punitive expedition but those efforts were badly planned, and failed. The Foxes used the respite to build a strong, well-planned fortification on the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay. The fort’s walls were made of oak logs reinforced with earth dug out of trenches inside the fort.

When the French and their allies finally attacked in 1716, they used artillery and formal European siege tactics to attack the Foxes’ fort. However, the Foxes held out against the French and their allies, and forced a humiliating retreat.

The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, members of the Illinois Confederacy captured the nephew a Fox chief and burned him alive. The murder was in retaliation for the Foxes’ continually hunting in the Illinois Country without the permission of the Confederacy. In their own retaliation, a Fox force swiftly moved down into the Illinois County, and attacked a group of the Illinois Confederacy they found, forcing them to take refuge at LaSalle’s old fort atop Starved Rock. The Illinois managed to send a message south to Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and a force of French and their Native American allies was dispatched to rescue the besieged Illinois. By the time the relief force arrived, the Foxes had wisely retreated, leaving about 120 Illinois dead.

Not content with hindering the French trade in furs, the Fox continually attacked down into the Illinois Country, raiding French and Native American villages alike. Deciding to take the offensive against the Foxes once again in 1727, the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beauharnois, planned a campaign to destroy the Foxes’ military power. The governor appointed Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to command the campaign. Under the plan, de Lignery gathered a force of French troops and Native American allies in the summer of 1728. The Canadian force was to link up with another group from Illinois commanded by Pierre Charles Desliettes, commander at Fort des Chartres. the Commandant of the Illinois District. The rendezvous of the two forces was to have been at Chicago. But Desliettes’ force of 20 French soldiers and 500 Illini warriors happened upon a hunting camp of Foxes, along with some Kickapoos and Mascoutens, which they immediately attacked. The French force killed 20 and captured 15, after which Desliettes’ Illinois decided they’d had enough warfare and headed back home..

The balance of de Lignery’s large force, numbering some 1,650 French and Indians, continued into the Foxes’ country, but moved too slowly. The Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked. The attackers only managed to burn some Fox and Winnebago villages and crops before they retired back to Canada.

Governor Beauharnois, however, had become determined to permanently solve his “Fox problem.” Part of the plan involved using interpreter Jean-Baptiste Reaume to stir up animosity against the Foxes among other tribes. With that set in motion, he also ordered French officials in the Illinois Country to be alert for any opportunities to destroy the Fox Tribe.

1731 Carte du Fort ou des Renards

Carte du Fort ou des Renards,” a map drawn in 1731 from accounts provided by French officers involved in the 1730 battle against the Fox Tribe proved Maramech Hill near Plano could not be the battle site. Click here for a larger copy. of the map.

At the same time, the bulk of the Fox Tribe had decided they’d had enough, and determined to leave their homeland and head back east to live under the protection of their one-time allies, the Iroquois. To that end they packed up and headed southeast with the intention of looping round the end of Lake Michigan down to Starved Rock and then east to cross the Wabash. The first part of their trip was uneventful, but when they reached Starved Rock, they attacked a group of Illinois Indians, capturing the son of one of that group’s chiefs, whom they burned at the stake. That infuriated the Illinois, who complained to the commandant at Fort de Chartres. For good measure, the Foxes had also attacked and angered groups of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Mascouten tribes, which, it turned out played right into the hands of the French since Reaume had been goading all of them to attack the Fox for the past couple years.

From Starved Rock, the Foxes, with about 350 warriors and around 1,000 women, children, and old men, headed southeast, intending to cross the Wabash River. But having again angered the Illinois with their attacks, a force of about 200 Illinois warriors forced the Foxes to stop and build a fort to protect themselves. In the meantime, the French were calling on their Indian allies to join them to fight the Foxes.

The French forces eventually involved included Lieutenant Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers, Commandant at the River St. Joseph in modern southern Michigan; Lieutenant Robert Groston de St. Ange from Fort de Chartres; and Reaume. The allied French and Indian forces numbered about 1,400, and arrived to besiege the Foxes about Aug. 20, 1730.

This time, the Foxes’ luck against the French and their allies ran out. Low on food and water, the Foxes decided to make a desperate run for it during a violent thunderstorm the night of Sept. 8. Caught on the prairie outside their fortification, the Foxes were attacked and nearly exterminated. The battle did solve the Fox problem for the French, but it also served to sow dissent among their own allies. After all, if the French could exterminate one tribe, they could probably exterminate others.

Steward, John FIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, John Steward of Plano decided this climactic battle took place Maramech Hill near Plano here in Kendall County. Armed with this conviction and a good deal of money, he set out to find information to prove his contention. In 1903, Steward published a book he felt proved his point, Lost Maramech and Earliest Chicago, and even had a huge rock moved to the hill and inscribed with his version of what be believed transpired there.

Steward’s contentions, however, were controversial from the beginning, with most historians pointing out the plain language of the French colonial documents Steward located in France proved Maramech Hill could not have been the battle’s location. His thesis suffered a serious blow in 1935 when Stanley Faye published “The Foxes Fort—1730” in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, an article that demolished most of Steward’s contentions. Some 50 years later, three contemporary maps of the battle and site that had been unavailable to Steward were discovered and described the Journal in 1980 (“The 1730 Fox Fort: A Recently Discovered Map Throws New Light on Its Siege and Location”) and 1987 (“The 1730 Siege of the Foxes: Two Maps by Canadian Participants Provide Additional Information on the Fort and Its Location”).

1900 Lettering the Maramech Hill marker

The carved granite boulder John F. Steward (right in photo) placed on Maramech Hill near Plano  to mark what he believed was the location of the climactic battle between the French and their Native American allies and the Fox Tribe in 1730.

That new evidence, combined with both old and newly discovered accounts of the battle have persuaded historians that Maramech Hill was not the site of the battle. Rather, it is probable it happened near Arrowsmith, Ill., located well to the south-southeast of Starved Rock, east of Bloomington in McLean County. Archaeological work at the Arrowsmith site has made it all but certain that was the location of the 1730 battle.

1903 Maramech Hill B

Maramech Hill in 1903

So, okay, the French-Fox battle of 1730 didn’t happen at Maramech Hill. What did go on there? Obviously, given the artifacts recovered by Steward, the site had been inhabited by Native Americans. As it turns out, many of the artifacts Steward recovered proved Maramech Hill had been the home of Native Americans for a long, long time—just not the ones he thought lived there.

The potsherds he recovered from the site, for instance, appear to be from the Mississippian cultural tradition, as do other stone tools such as hoes for working cornfields. The Mississippian culture was based on growing corn and on trade all over North America. Their capital was at modern Cahokia where upwards of 40,000 may have lived in the area surrounding Monk’s Mound, the largest manmade earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. The river and creek bottomlands around Maramech Hill seem to have been tailor-made for the intensive agriculture practiced by the Mississippians.

But the artifacts Steward says he collected also point to habitation after the era of the French-Fox War as well, including trade silver that was created by British fur trade companies after the end of the French and Indian War in the late 1760s. Maramech Hill may have been the location of a Potawatomi village in the early 1800s led by Main Poche, a noted warrior who opposed the U.S. during the War of 1812.

Today, Maramech Hill and its immediate area are one of Kendall County’s most historically significant areas. Although Steward’s insistence that the climactic battle of 1730 between the French and the Fox Tribe happened there has been proven wrong over the last century and a quarter, the research into that era and the conflict between the Foxes and the French have proved to be extremely informative. For instance, warfare between the Fox Tribe and the French did not follow the familiar Hollywood script. Instead, the Foxes were able to develop the practical engineering expertise to blunt or thwart every French attack, including those involving artillery. In the end, it was lack of supplies that forced the Foxes to leave their fortified camp, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by a superior force. And while the battle didn’t happen here in Kendall County, it was part of the region’s history that made this its own “dark and bloody ground.’

Van de Rohe Farnsworth House drawing

The house legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed and built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth draws visitors from all over the world to the Maramech Hill area.

Further, the area in which Maramech Hill is situated had its own fascinating history during the pioneer era and afterwards. Just down the road a bit from Maramech Hill, where the road—part of the old Fox River Trail stagecoach road from Ottawa to Geneva—crosses Rob Roy Creek was the tiny hamlet of Penfield, where a post office was established in December 1839. When Marcus Steward—John Steward’s father—established his new town along the right-of-way of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Penfield Post Office was moved to the new town on the railroad tracks, opening as Plano in May, 1854.

In addition, the neighborhood also features Kendall County’s only international attraction, the Farnsworth House, designed and built between 1945 and 1951 by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth on the banks of the Fox River just a short distance from Maramech Hill. The architectural treasure annually draws thousands of visitors from around the world to see van der Rohe’s architectural gem.

2016 Maramech Forest PreserveFinally, thanks to the area’s topography, today the Maramech Hill area is also one of Kendall County’s natural jewels featuring rare and endangered plants, a startling variety of wildlife, and unique geographical features.

Prehistory and the region’s elaborate civilizations created by Native People, Illinois’ turbulent early frontier era, the era of settlement, its rare and endangered plants and animals, the nearby Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, and world-class architecture combine to make Maramech Hill and its surrounding region one of Kendall County’s most important and interesting areas.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

A bit of French colonial history close to home right here in northern Illinois…

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.

Starved Rock

A vintage postcard view of Starved Rock published not long after it was opened as a state park.

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.

Indians Starved Rock

Linguist Father Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet visited the Grand Village of Kaskaskia just across the river from Starved Rock in 1673. The Rock is prominent in the background in this illustration.

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.

1683 Ft St. Louis on Starved Rock

LaSalle and Tonti built Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock in the winter of 1682 to anchor LaSalle’s fur trade concession obtained from the French crown. The French abandoned the fort about 1701.

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.

Franquelin map color

Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle provided the information for cartographer Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin to draw this map of the area on the upper Illinois River in 1684, including the number of Native Americans drawn to the area due to promises of protection by the French.

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.

Starved Rock modern shot

After nearly 350 years, Starved Rock is still an impressive sight on the Illinois River.

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.

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Washington , D.C. was just one crime scene on the beaver comeback trail

With the seemingly unrelenting grimness of the news lately, it was nice to run across a story from a couple decades ago that gave me, at least, a bit of comic relief.

While looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon a newspaper clipping (remember those?), and when I saw it, I remembered being amused when the story hit way back then—which is like two centuries in Internet age.

What happened was the U.S. Park Service had geared up and was hot on the trail of vandals who had severely damaged some of those prized cherry trees on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Come to find out, though, the “vandals” were furry critters with flat tails, great big teeth, and healthy appetites—beavers.

It’s not too surprising, I suppose, that park rangers in Washington, D.C., one of the most heavily urbanized areas in the nation, were at first surprised to find beavers munching happily away on the capital’s prized cherry trees.

We’re not nearly as heavily urbanized here in northeast Oswego Township as they are in Washington, D.C., but we’re not exactly out in the boonies, either—the population’s fairly dense around these parts. But beavers, like raccoons, coyotes, squirrels, deer, skunks, and a host of other wild animals don’t mind living amongst us humans.

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The Fox River Trail at Violet Patch Park along the Fox River just north of Oswego.

In fact, many of those animals thrive thanks to humans. The population of whitetail deer, for instance, has exploded in recent years, and there are now far more of them bounding about the countryside here in the Fox Valley than 200 years ago. During my childhood back in the mists of history, there were none around here at all.

We’ve had our beaver problems, too, here in the Fox Valley, just like in D.C. Beavers like young trees best—like the ones park and forest preserve districts favor planting—and have been known to mow down dozens of succulent saplings in a single night. The Oswegoland Park District found that out to its dismay back 2002 when they landscaped the stretch of the Fox River Trail between Oswego and Montgomery. In a single night, beavers gnawed off dozens of brand new trees that still had their root balls bagged in burlap as they awaited planting. Those of us living along the Fox River’s banks know it’s best to armor plate fruit and most other young trees, or the local resident beaver will chop it down in no time.

It wasn’t all that many years ago that beaver were virtually non-existent here in the Fox Valley. The beaver population, along with muskrats, mink, and other fur-bearing animals had been wiped out nearly 200 years ago in the waning days of the fur trade. And given the area’s quick conversion to farm fields from the native prairies between the late 1830s and early 1850s, the habitat changed far too quickly for wild animals to adapt. And then, as if that wasn’t enough ecological stress, the Fox River was so polluted by industrial and human waste from the late 19th through the mid 20th centuries that most wild animals couldn’t live in it. Mercury, cyanide and other heavy metals poison beavers just as surely as people.

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Fox River beavers don’t build traditional lodges, but instead burrow into the riverbank to create their homes.

By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County in the late 1820s, most of the prime fur-bearers had already been trapped or hunted to local extinction by the Native Americans who lived here during the fur trade era. The fur trade was, in large part, what drove the westward expansion of the European colonizing nations. French, Dutch, and British traders pushed ever farther west in a vigorous and ruthless quest for more and higher quality furs.

The beaver population in eastern Canada and in the area east of the Appalachians had been largely trapped out as early as the late 1600s, so the only option was to seek furs farther west. The French had penetrated all the way to Lake Superior by the early 1600s, although they were stopped from moving into the southern Great Lakes by the Iroquois Confederacy, which hated the French and their allies. Meanwhile, British traders, primarily Scots and Irish adventurers, penetrated the Appalachian chain of mountains and dealt with western tribes for furs.

This frantic economic exploitation of natural resources was not peaceful, of course, The Iroquois Confederacy attempted to corner the fur market in the late 1600s, raiding west in large numbers from their homeland in upper New York. The conflicts of the era historians call the Beaver Wars resulted in the extermination of some tribes and forced the displacement of many others.

In addition, the Dutch, French, and British all fought wars over the fur trade, each with their own set of Native American allies, until the British emerged victorious in 1765 following the Seven Years War. But their triumph was only fleeting; their North American colonies south of Canada successfully rebelled forming the United States.

Even so, the fur trade and its resulting competition continued.

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At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi River stood at between 2 and 4 million animals. Bison are gradually being reintroduced back into Illinois at various state and national wildlife areas. This photo was taken at the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove here in Illinois.

The trade had major effects on the Midwest. Most fur-bearing animals were driven to regional extinction, as were most of the larger game animals like the whitetail deer mentioned above, which were prized for their tanned hides. Other casualties were the Eastern Elk and the Eastern Bison. Both large animals breed slowly and the introduction of firearms into the area starting in the late 1600s had a major impact on their populations. It was about that time the Eastern Bison herds reached their largest populations, but then the subsistence hunting of Native People changed to market hunting for the fur trade. Thousands of the large animals were killed for their hides. According to R. Bruce McMillan writing in Records of Early Bison in Illinois (Illinois State Museum, 2006), a bison tannery established on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Ohio River shipped between 12,000 and 15,000 bison hides down the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1702 alone. Heavy hunting pressure combined with a series of harsh winters put severe pressure on both the region’s bison and elk populations. The last Illinois bison was killed in 1808.

After the Revolution, two major companies, the North West Company and the XY Company, dominated the Great Lakes fur trade until 1808. That year, a German immigrant, John Jacob Astor, established the American Fur Company, and began a spirited competition with the established companies, including the Hudson Bay Company.

Surviving the upheaval of the War of 1812, Astor gradually consolidated his efforts in the upper Midwest, moving the administrative headquarters of that part of the operation to Mackinac Island in the strait between lakes Huron and Michigan. Each year, brigades of boats and canoes left Mackinac Island and headed into the interior to gather furs from the Native Americans and trappers of European descent who had harvested them during the winter months. The cold winters of the upper Midwest caused beaver and other fur bearing animals to grow thick, lustrous pelts. In fact, the prime winter beaver pelt was the de facto currency in the area before settlement.

Mackinac Boat

The fur trade first depended on large birch bark canoes, but switched to Mackinac boats in the 19th Century, especially in the areas south of the range of birch trees.

Fleets of the double-ended, sturdily built Mackinac boats favored for the trade were rowed and sailed down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Chicago and up the Chicago River to the portage into the DesPlaines, provided there was enough water in it. The route was then down the DesPlaines to the confluence with the Kankakee. On this part of the route, it was not uncommon for the boats and the goods they carried to be hauled overland by wagon some 60 miles to the confluence with the Kankakee.

The Fox and DuPage rivers were seldom used to transport furs or trade goods because both were too shallow. Instead, goods were unloaded at depots along the Illinois River. Furs were transported to the depots by the Indian and white trappers, where they were exchanged for goods. In addition, traders working for the American Fur Company used packhorses to transport trade goods and furs along regular routes. Before he settled down in Kendall County, Vetal Vermet, an early resident, had been an American Fur Company trader who worked a regular route from Peoria to Detroit, passing through the area as he gathered Fox River-produced furs.

In 1834, Astor, correctly figuring the furs were about tapped out in the upper Midwest, sold the American Fur Company, instantly making him one of the richest men in the country. The company’s Midwestern operations were shut down soon after, although the firm itself lingered until 1864, with its operations moving steadily westward as the era of the French voyageurs gave way to that of the mountain men who harvested Rocky Mountain furs.

Today, many of the fur-bearers that made fortunes for some during the fur trade era are on their way back from local extinction, including the bison and, much to the dismay of cherry tree guards in Washington, D.C., those hungry beavers.

 

 

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Indian Removal Act forced the departure of local Native Americans

November is Native American Heritage Month, fitting because of the history behind the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. After all, if not for the help of Native Americans, the Pilgrim Fathers probably would have starved to death after only a few years.

Unfortunately, the President, apparently still harboring a grudge against Native Americans because of casino deals gone bad and reportedly at the behest of rich Republican donors, decided to proclaim November as “National American History and Founders Month.” Fortunately, though, there’s been no noticeable effect. Major museums and organizations are still commemorating the month that honors the people who greeted those first Europeans when they stepped ashore.

These days, the long occupation of the Fox River Valley by Native People is only dimly recalled through the names of places, geographical features, roads, and buildings. The story of what happened to those first residents of our region of northern Illinois begins with the arrival of the first European explorers.

Marquette & Jolliet

Jolliet and Marquette explored the Illinois River Valley in 1673 and found the related tribes of the Illinois Confederacy living here.

In 1673, the governor of New France, which included Canada and much of the northern U.S. west of the Appalachian Mountains, commissioned an exploration expedition of the Mississippi River watershed. Rumor had it that the Mississippi ran southwesterly, possibly to the Pacific Ocean, meaning it could provide a water highway to the Pacific Ocean. Those speculations proved untrue, but the expedition’s leaders, geographer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, did leave us the first written descriptions of central Illinois.

From those accounts and others, we know that at that time Illinois was occupied by the six main tribal groups comprising the Illinois Confederation. Calling themselves the Illiniwek (which meant “the men”) and “Illinois” by the French, the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Michigamea, Peoria, Moingwena, and Tamaroa, primarily made their summer homes along the Illinois River, which was named for them. The confederacy’s family groups used Kendall County and other areas along the Illinois’ tributaries as hunting grounds and winter quarters.

Beginning about 1660, the Iroquois Confederacy, whose home was in upstate New York, began a series of military campaigns all the way west into Illinois in a quest to seize control of the lucrative trade in furs—primarily beaver pelts—with the Europeans. Although sometimes playing both sides against each other, in general the Iroquois favored the British while the tribes of Algonquian stock living in the western Great Lakes were allied with the French.

Starved Rock

LaSalle and Tonti established a trade fort atop Starved Rock where the Fox River joins the Illinois, drawing several thousand Native Americans to the area for protection against their enemies.

The turmoil, called the Beaver Wars by historians, drove the Illinois west of the Mississippi for several years and they had probably just returned in 1673 when Marquette and Joliet encountered them. Then in September 1680, the Iroquois attacked again, crushing the Illiniwek in a series of battles.

By 1683, the constant Iroquois threat to French economic interests led adventurer, entrepreneur, and explorer Robert Cavelier de laSalle to fortify Starved Rock and gather several thousand Indians to that vicinity for mutual protection. A 1684 map shows the Fox Valley occupied by a number of Indian groups connected by trade and security understandings with LaSalle’s Starved Rock venture. After the area’s resources were exhausted some years later, LaSalle’s principal lieutenant, Henri de Tonti, abandoned Starved Rock, and relocated the entire fur trading and regional security operation south to Lake Peoria. Eventually, most of the French moved even farther south to Kaskaskia and Cahokia along the Mississippi in southern Illinois. With that move went the remnant of the Illiniwek, creating a strategic vacuum in the Fox Valley.

The culturally related Fox, Mascouten, and Kickapoo tribes unsuccessfully attempted to occupy the region following the French war of extermination waged against the Fox in the 1720s and 1730s, and the Fox Valley was again considered part of the Illinois’ domain. However, in 1746, interrelated bands of the Pottawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes—who called themselves the Three Fires Confederacy—began to move into northern Illinois from their homes in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. They were being pushed west by other tribes who were, in an ethnic and economic chain reaction, trying to escape further depredations of the grimly efficient Iroquois.

Gradually, the Three Fires pushed out the other tribes then attempting to claim northern Illinois. Since the last Illinois bands had been eliminated from the Fox Valley for several years, the Three Fires claimed the area as their own.

During the French and Indian War of the early 1760s, the Three Fires continued their long-time support of the French. Even after the British won the war, the Pottawatomi remained loyal to their French friends. They killed several British fur traders and participated in the western tribes’ attempt to force the British back west of the Appalachian Mountains in the brief war called Pontiac’s Rebellion.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Waubonsee was one of the principal war chiefs of the Three Fires Confederacy. His village was located along the Fox River between Oswego and Batavia.

 

By the time of the Revolutionary War, however, the Three Fires had transferred their loyalty to the British, and fought against the Americans, who had begun to encroach on territory the tribes considered their own. Three Fires villages located up and down the Fox River also supported the British during the War of 1812, with many of them taking part in the destruction of Ft. Dearborn—now Chicago—in 1812. That year, according to U.S. Indian Agent Thomas Forsyth, the Three Fires could muster some 600 warriors. Forsyth reported that year that Chiefs Waubonsee and Main Poche both had villages located on the Fox River from where war parties participated in raids and battles against the Americans.

After the War of 1812 solidified the United States’ hold on the Illinois Country, the Three Fires tried to protect through diplomacy what they had failed to protect through military action. They were, however, unsuccessful in this, and were forced into a number of key land cessions during the next two decades.

President Thomas Jefferson had established a policy in 1803 for the removal of Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River to open land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River for settlement. In 1830 the policy became law with passage of the Indian Removal Act, which was strongly supported by the southern states and by President Andrew Jackson.

In the aftermath of the brief Winnebago War of 1827 and the much more serious Black Hawk War of 1832, Illinois settlers clamored for the removal of all the native tribes from the state. In spite of the Three Fires’ general support for the U.S. during both upheavals the Winnebago and Black Hawk wars, the U.S. government readily agreed with the sentiment of the settlers who were trying to establish new homes and the land speculators who were eager to make profits.

1829-andrew-jackson

President Andrew Jackson championed the removal of Native People from the area east of the Mississippi. While the “Trail of Tears” suffered by the Five Civilized Tribes is the best-known of the removals, the tribulations of the Three Fires Confederacy were just as harrowing.

In the fall of 1835, under orders from the federal government, the first large group of the Three Fires left from near Chicago and were removed to a region in northwestern Missouri called the Platte Country or the Platte Purchase. Two years later, the rest of the Fox Valley bands of the Three Fires were sent west in October, traveling through near continual rain and mud, across the Mississippi at Quincy before arriving in the Platte Country in mid-November. While the infamous “Trail of Tears” suffered by the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) is the best known story of the disasters suffered through the Indian removal policy, the removals of Native People from northern Illinois were just as brutal.

But by the time the Three Fires arrived in the Platte Country, settlers had already started to filter into the area. So the tired and bedraggled Three Fires people were almost immediately forced by the U.S. Army to move farther west onto the shortgrass prairie near Council Bluffs in what would soon become western Iowa. It was wholly unfamiliar country for them and they strongly disliked due to its lack of timber, not to mention the arrival, again, of increasing numbers of white settlers.

So finally, in late 1837, they were removed one last time to what was hoped would be their final home on the Marais des Cygnes River in Kansas. And so it proved to be.

Despite strong government pressure, some Three Fires families had refused to move. After seeing the lands they were assigned in Iowa and farther west, others who had moved slowly drifted back to Illinois, only to be rounded up by the government and sent back again. The last of the Fox Valley’s Indian residents weren’t permanently moved west until 1838.

And that finally brought the Native American presence in the area to a close after 120 centuries of continuous habitation along the banks of the Fox River, something it might be worthwhile to think about as we observe Native American Heritage Month.

 

 

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