Origin and History
The Illinois people are an Algonquian-speaking group of Native Americans. They inhabited a region of the Mississippi River valley, from present-day Iowa to the shores of Lake Michigan around present-day Chicago south to present-day Arkansas centered on the Illinois River. It was a loose confederacy of twelve bands (Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, Tamaroa, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara). Some bands lived west of the Mississippi River, in present-day eastern Iowa, Missouri and north-eastern Arkansas. Overall, their population was estimated to be about 10,500 people in the 1670s. Their hunting territory also extended into western Kentucky. The Michigamea and Chepoussa were isolated from the other Illinois tribes by the territory of the Osage people. Culturally, although seldom friendly, they most closely resembled the Miami.
By the early 1640s, small groups of Fox (Meskwaki), Sauk, Mascouten, Kickapoo and Potawatomi refugees began moving into Illinois territory due to the Beaver or Mourning Wars occurring to the east. This did not bother the Illinois. The Winnebago, despite being an enemy of the Illinois, were sent a large supply of food with 500 warriors to assist them whilst besieged by the Fox at their fortified village at Green Bay. However, the Winnebago murdered the Illinois warriors during a feast to appease the spirits of their dead warriors who had fought the Illinois. The Winnebago then retreated to an island in the middle of Lake Winnebago until the Illinois attacked them over the frozen ice and completely annihilated them. The Illinois brought 150 captives home.
In the 1650s, the Illinois provided aid to refugee |Wyandot (Petun and Huron). The Seneca demanded the Illinois to give them up but they refused. The Seneca attacked their village but were defeated by the Illinois despite the former being armed with firearms.
Illinois parties began visiting the French post at Chequamegon as early as 1667. When the French first visited the Illinois in the 1673, the Jesuit Jacques Marquette found the Peoria using trade goods, including guns. The desire for trade precipitated a rapid concentration at the Kaskasia village near Starved Rock.
In 1667, the Iroquois Confederacy forced the Illinois people to take refuge west of the Mississippi. However, 500 mostly Tamaroa Illinois stayed and were completely defeated by the Seneca. When the Iroquois made peace with the French, the Illinois gradually returned to their former territory east of the Mississippi River. By 1673, most of their villages were located between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, but they still had villages on the west bank of the Mississippi.
In 1675, the French established a Catholic mission in the main village of the Kaskaskia villages on the Illinois River, and a fur trading post nearby. Most Illinois bands gradually relocated on the Illinois River, near this new trading post.
In 1682 the French under La Salle built Fort Saint-Louis overlooking the Illinois River. Some 20,000 Algonquin speaking allies began trading there. In the spring of 1684, the Seneca mustered 700 warriors and made their way there. Many Illinois left but those who stayed forced the Seneca to retreat.
Overhunting due to refugees in Illinois territory caused a drastic decline in buffalo which forced the Illinois to hunt further west. This resulted in clashes with the Dakota. In 1689 loss of resources also provoked a confrontation with the Shawnee who had moved into the southern part of Illinois country causing tension between two nations allied to the French. Unfortunately, the French finding a rich source of fur in Dakota lands were no longer concerned with the Illinois.
In the winter 1692-1693 many Illinois children died of an unidentified disease.
From 1690 to 1700, the Illinois people were driven out of northern Missouri and south-east Iowa by thee Osage and Missouri. Meanwhile, between 1693 and 1698, the Michigamea and Chepoussa bands were driven out of northern Arkansas by the Quapaw. The Shawnee and Chickasaw forced the Michigamea north toward the Kaskaskia. The Kaskaskia absorbed smaller bands but were forced, with some Michigamea, into southern Illinois by the Fox (Meskwaki) and Winnebago, settling near the Jesuit mission at the mouth of the Kaskaskia River. By 1703 these Michigamea had been absorbed by the Kaskaskia. All but the Peoria were confined to southern Illinois near the east bank of the Mississippi.
In 1704, there was a smallpox epidemic among the Illinois people.
In 1705, a Peoria man attacked and severely wounded Father Jacques Gravier who eventually died. The Illinois continued attacking and killing French traders.
In 1712 the Fox went to war against the French and their allies. The Illinois involved themselves as they considered they had a score to settle with the Fox. The Illinois Fox war continued after peace was made with the French by the Fox in 1716.
In 1714, a measles outbreak killed 200 Kaskaskias.
In 1720, the French colonists established Fort de Chartres in Illinois territory.
In 1722, the Peoria band suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Fox.
In 1726, a force of French soldiers met with 500 Illinois warriors at Fort de Chartres in the hope of moving north to end the hostilities between the Peoria and the Fox. The Fox withdrew from the conflict.
In 1728 some Fox people, in an attempt to move east toward their Iroquois allies, began crossing Illinois territory but were caught near present-day Bloomington by the Illinois and their French allies and were slaughtered.
In 1732 a smallpox epidemic broke out among the Illinois. In 1736, the French estimated the Illinois population to only 2,500 people.
In 1736, Pierre D'Artaguiette led a force of 200 French and Native Americans from Fort de Chartres to attack the British allied Chickasaw whose territory lay on the route from the Lakes to Nouvelle-Orléans. The Michigamea Captain Chicagou commanded the Illinois and Miami warriors accompanying the French. A second group was composed of Cahokia and Michigamea men. In addition to these, some Iroquois and Choctaw joined D'Artaguiette's force. Another French and Choctaw force was to march north from Nouvelle-Orléans under Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. However, in March 1736 D'Artaguiette met with disaster while attacking the village of Ogoula Tchetoka (near present-day north-west Tupelo, Mississippi). The French were crushed, and d'Artaguiette was killed. Bienville’s army, unaware of the defeat, were repulsed in an attack on the fortified Chickasaw village of Ackia (in present-day south Tupelo).
In 1739 in order to avenge the French and Indian defeat at Ackia, Bienville led a force of 3,500, including a contingent 40 French regulars and 117 Illinois warriors, against the Chickasaw. They were later joined by 30 more Kaskaskia warriors. Heavy rain, combined with outbreaks of disease, slowed up advance and Bienville was forced to make peace with the Chickasaws. However, raids continued between the Illinois and Chickasaw.
By the 1750s, the Illinois people had been reduced to only five bands: the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa and were confined to southern Illinois.
In June 1752 over 1,000 Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Winnebago and Dakota warriors travelled by canoe down the Mississippi and destroyed the Michigamea village near Cahokia killing over 80 warriors. As a result, the Michigamea moved to Fort de Chartres and merged with the Kaskaskia.
Role during the War
By the time of the Seven Years’ War, the Illinois people had fewer than 500 warriors. During the war they supported the French cause but do not seem to have been involved in the flighting in the east, The Illinois continued to raid the British allied Chickasaw throughout the war.
In 1757, 25 Illinois warriors took part in Montcalm’s expedition against Fort William Henry, and contracted smallpox. That winter, when they returned to their villages, they brought back the disease with them. The epidemic soon spread among North American peoples of the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, which were allied with the French.
In May 1758, Bougainville recorded that: ‘The Illinois people sent a great shipment of flour, Indian corn, beans and peas to La Belle Rivière [to Fort Duquesne on the Ohio], which fortunately puts them in shape to get along without help from us this year.’
Fort de Chartres remained in French hands throughout the French and Indian War. It was only relinquished to the British in 1766 following the war to expel the occupying British from Native American sovereign territories in the Ohio catchment (Pontiac’s War) in which the Illinois took part.
At the time of writing there is no specific written description of Illinois dress known to the author from the mid-18th century. Father Rasles wrote in 1723 that: ‘The Illinois are covered only around the waist, otherwise they go nude; many panels with all sorts of figures, which they mark on the body in an ineffaceable manner [tattoos], take the place of garments with them. It is only when they make visits, or then they are present in Church, that they wrap themselves in a cloak of dressed skin in the summer-time, and in the winter season in a dressed skin with the hair left on that they might keep warm...’
The accompanying painting represents Illinois people on their way to Nouvelle-Orléans in 1735. The men have black and red face paint and red body paint. The leader has a green necklace and red breechclout, his hand rests in the head of a heron (probably indicating his clan). The crouching dancer has red face and body paint and wears a red breechclout. The woman wears a red skirt. A captive, probably adopted, Fox woman is shown at bottom left wrapped in a skin robe.
The accompanying drawing illustrates a Kaskaskia Illinois man, in 1796. His head is shaved leaving a scalplock with hawk feathers (?), a red feather pendant, and he has a black and white headband with silver ornaments, red face paint, silver ornaments in his nasal septum and ears. He wears a white and grey calico shirt, silver armbands, blue blanket edged with ribbon, purple half-leggings with blue edged garters, a sash and belt with knife sheaf.
From a 1735 illustration it appears that Illinois warriors shaved their heads leaving a large patch of long hair on the crown, the scalplock, which was braided and hung down the back. A later drawing from 1796 shows a short, roached hairstyle running from the front of the head to the back with a short ‘tail’. It was noted in 1690 that some Illinois men regarded, ‘... as handsome in their short and erect hair, and also what pleases other in their long locks; for, in clipping the greater part of the head.... they leave four great mustaches [braids], one each side of the ear, arranging them in such order as to avoid inconvenience for them.’ It is also likely that men wore a smaller scalplock plaited into several braids as common with other nations south of the Great Lakes.
It is likely that feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences. They adorned the head with feathers of many colours, of which they make garlands and crowns which they arrange becomingly; above all things Rasles stated in 1723: ‘They adorned the head with feathers of many colours, of which they make garlands and crowns which they arrange becomingly.’ The 1796 drawing of an Illinois man shows feathers worn both in the hair and an ostrich feather inserted into the front of his headband. He also wears a string of clustered red dyed fluff feathers from the back of his roached hair. The headband is decorated rows of silver broaches. A circular roach of red dyed deer hair sewed around a woven base secured with a bone spreader may have been worn. It is fixed to the head by passing a scalp braid through the spreader and secured with a wooden pin to the head. Mounted in on the spreader was a bone or wood socket into which a single eagle feather was fixed so that it could revolve with the wearer’s movement.
Tattoo and Paint
A Frenchman described in the 1690s: ‘They are tattooed behind the shoulders to the heels and as soon as the reach the age of twenty-five, on the front of the stomach, the sides, and the upper arms.’ It is likely this practice continued into the mid-18th century. The tattoos were geometrical in design and included triangles, nested triangles, circles, parallel zig-zag lines and crosses. The circle-and-cross design was also common; it appears on the shoulders of all three men and on the knees of one in the de Batz watercolour of 1735.
In 1723 the Jesuit Rasles noted that, ‘... above all things, they are careful to paint the face with different colours, but especially with vermillion.’
Ears and Nose
Illinois men pierced their ears. However, there is no evidence that they detached the helix of the ear as did those men of nations to the east of them. Even so, some may have. Earrings were made of silver, brass and sometimes tin. These could have pendant solid silver ball and cones or thin sheets of brass cut into triangles for example. Little red, blue or white stones are mentioned by the Jesuit Rasles in 1723. Pendants were also created from pieces of French pottery.
Some Illinois men may have also pierced their nose septum but again there is no evidence that they did.
Ornaments and Necklaces
Rasles observed in 1723 that Illinois men wore, ‘... collars... made of little stones, which they cut like precious stones; some are blue, some red, and some white as alabaster; to these must be added a flat piece of porcelain which finishes the collar.’ The red stone would have conceivably been red pipestone from what is now Minnesota. By the mid-18th century, it is likely that glass beads had become more commonly used in necklaces. The ‘flat piece of porcelain’ is likely to have been a disc or gorget of shell. Crosses could also have been used as pendants. In the late 1660s Jacques Gravier, a Jesuit who resided amongst the Peoria, requested supplies of ‘Ten pounds of large glass Beads – black, white, and Striped. Ten pounds of small glass beads – white, green and transparent.’
Silver bracelets and armbands were worn. Silver armbands are shown in the 1796 illustration of a Kaskaskia man and bracelets have been found by archaeologists at a Michigamea Illinois village site (1752-1765) as has a French made silver gorget. One bracelet was engraved with a floral design. Brass rings were given to the Illinois by the Jesuits.
Breechclout and Apron
The primary item of dress for Illinois men was the breechclout. J.C. Bonin recorded of Native American men in the Ohio catchment although likely to be applicable to the Illinois that ‘The loincloth is made of deerskin or cloth obtained from Europeans. It is a quarter or third cloth that the men wind between their legs. The piece of cloth is held in place around the hips with a cord. The two ends of the loincloth are folded over in front and in the back, with the end in front longer than the one in the back.’ From the illustrations of Illinois men their breechclouts appear to be short in front and back.
Illinois men wore half leggings which were fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, broaches and braid. Obviously, these were for best wear and that on the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin would be worn.
Garters were worn below the knee. Garters were made of woven bison hair or probably from woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave of or of deerskin. The porcupine was absent from Illinois territory so it is likely that garters or other items were rarely decorated with quillwork. The Illinois obtained porcupine quills in trade with the Potawatomi and Odawa.
Illinois moccasins were made of smoked buckskin with a puckered centre seam along the instep. They had cuffs split at the back (women’s moccasins were made with a single cuff around the ankle). Porcupine quillwork is only recorded amongst the Illinois in decorating moccasins. These would have been for best wear and not those worn on the trail which commonly wore out.
A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermillion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.
Blankets and Robes
Trade blankets, usually of blue or red woollen cloth, which could be decorated with bands of ribbon, and skin robes were worn for warmth. Some skin robes, probably worn on special occasions, were decorated with red and black paint in elaborate geometric designs.
Illinois warriors are likely to have hung from the belt holding the breechclout their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which could be the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel.
By the beginning of the 18th century the standard trade musket that armed the Illinois was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. After 1745 the ‘V’ changed to a ‘U’. Characteristically the stock had a drooped ‘cow’s foot’ butt.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of the deerskin probably with a rounded bottom, from animal skins with the hair left on, otter or badger for example, or perhaps of woven fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads. Straps were likely to have been made of deerskin, or woven fibre. A knife was carried in a sheaf (which, rarely may have been decorated with quillwork) hung around the neck.
A tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt on the hip.
Each Illinois warrior kept bird skins in a coloured reed mat. The departure of war party was preceded by an all-night ritual to secure the favour of the bird spirits, whose skins were displayed together. When the warriors set out these birds’ skins were placed in the leader’s reed mat, along with medicines, and taken along with them.
Callender, Charles, Illinois: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 673-680.
Jarvis, Tim L., Shadows in the Forest: Woodland Warriors of the Mississippi Valley, Herrin: Broken Antler Publishing, 2014.
Rogers, Gerald A., The changing Illinois Indians under European influence: The split between the Kaskaskia and Peoria, 2009. Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 4522.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791], 66.
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of the entire article