Origin and History
The Kickapoo people are an Algonquian-speaking group of Native Americans. By common tradition, the Kickapoo and Shawnee believe they were once a single nation but separated after an argument over a bear’s paw. When first contacted by the French in 1640 the Kickapoo inhabited a region in the western Great Lakes, in present-day northwest Ohio and southern Michigan, between Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.
From 1640, attacks by the Iroquois Confederacy gradually forced the Kickapoo people to migrate westwards into the south of what is now Wisconsin where the French found them in 1665. Their locations are uncertain as they often shared settlements with the Mascouten and Miami peoples. They entered the fur trade but resisted Jesuit missionaries and were sometimes overtly hostile to the French, shooting isolated messengers and coureurs des bois, and those friendly to the French.
In 1672 the Jesuits established the Saint-Jacques mission at Green Bay for the Kickapoo and Mascouten, but there was no interest in it.
As early as 1680 the Kickapoos were ranging as far south as the Illinois River. Late in the century, they occupied a territory along the Wabash River in Indiana, with minor settlements on the Upper Iowa River and the Root River in southeast Minnesota. They then established contact with the French, when La Salle explored the Ohio. French trading posts were soon established along the Wabash River. In 1684, the French estimated the population to 2,000 peoples.
Between 1690 and 1700 Kickapoo war parties were raiding the Iroquois in the east, the Dakota to the west and plundering French convoys.
About 1710 some Kickapoo joined the French-sponsored movement to the new post at Detroit settling at the mouth of the Maumee, perhaps their pre-contact homeland.
Between 1712 and 1715, the Kickapoo people took part in the first Fox War, as allies of the Fox. In 1712 the French and their allies massacred the Fox and Mascouten living at Detroit. As a result, the Kickapoo there returned to the upper Mississippi valley. The following year, with their Fox and Mascouten allies, the Kickapoo pushed their attacks to the northern reaches of Nouvelle France, their envoys seeking an alliance in Iroquois country. In the winter of 1715 and spring of 1716, the Kickapoo and Mascouten were attacked by the French along with their Potawatomi and Illinois allies in southern Wisconsin, forcing them to make a separate peace.
By 1724, the Kickapoo people was once more allied with the Fox, Mascouten, Dakota, and Winnebago against the French. By 1728, French diplomacy had managed to reduce the alliance to only three peoples: the Fox, Kickapoo and Mascouten.
By 1729 the Kickapoo had moved southward, displacing the Illinois, and were centred on the lower Rock River. Within a few years they had moved into what is now central Illinois and were pushing east and south to the Wabash. During this process the Kickapoo split into two bands: the Prairie Band settled in central Illinois, ranging from the Sangamon valley to Lake Peoria; and the Vermillion Band living along the west banks and tributaries of the Wabash in close association with the Mascouten whom they were absorbing. Here they continued to raid the Illinois people.
In 1729, the Kickapoo and the Mascouten abandoned the alliance after an incident where Fox warriors had killed some of their warriors. In 1730 the Kickapoo attacked a Fox village near Le Rocher on the Illinois River and with the aid of the French from Fort Chartres destroyed it. In 1735 Kickapoo war party accompanied the French to attack a Fox village on the Mississippi.
The Kickapoo became dependable French allies even when their Miami neighbours were gravitating towards the British.
Between 1732 and 1752, Kickapoo warriors also assisted the French in their war against the Chickasaw and Natchez.
In July and August 1754, the Odawa brought together 1,200 delegates, including from the Kickapoo, at Michilimackinac to discuss the impending conflict and to hold formal talks with the French.
By 1759, the Kickapoo counted some 3,000 peoples.
Role during the War
Throughout the French and Indian War, the Kickapoo successfully defended French interests in the Ohio-Mississippi region against attacks by the British allied Chickasaw.
However, from November 1759 to August 1760 Kickapoo diplomats attended the councils held by the British at Fort Pitt. At a conference on September 15, whilst not attending, the Kickapoo sent a wampum belt to acknowledge the peace with the British. The same year the British occupied Fort Ouiatenon forcing the Vermillion Kickapoo to trade with them instead. The British military commander, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, ordered an increase in the price of trade goods, restricted their supply (especially gunpowder), and ended annual presents to leaders and diplomats.
The Kickapoo were to become eager participants in the war of 1763 to free allied nations from British occupation of their territories in the Ohio catchment (so-called Pontiac’s War). In the case of the Kickapoo additionally this was due to British incitement of the Chickasaw against them and their intrigue amongst the Miami and their neighbours.
In 1788 William Biggs who had been captured by the Kickapoo wrote, ‘... they are all naked except breachcloth, leggings, and mocasins.’ He also describes: ‘One of the Indians had a handkerchief around his head and was carrying a gun; the other had a cocked hat on his head, and had a large sword.’ He was given ‘a very large ostrich plume’.
At the time of writing there is no specific written description of Kickapoo dress known to the author from the mid-18th century. The following is surmised:
An 1830’s portrait by Catlin of Ah-ton-we-tuck, an elder, shows his head ‘shaved’ with a patch of hair left as a scalplock. This is likely to be a traditional style worn by Kickapoo warriors at the time of the French and Indian War. The loose hair was also likely to have been plaited into one of more braids by some.
It is likely that feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences.
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
Tattooing of the face and body may have been practised by Kickapoo men as an alternative to painting, although there is no written record of such that the author has come across. Tattoos in the form of some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure were likely to have been ingrained with powdered charcoal. Linear patterns were also probably used extensively.
It is likely that warriors painted their faces and bodies with personal design, predominately red and black paint prior to entering combat.
Ears and Nose
Kickapoo men are likely to have pierced 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.
Catlin painted one Kickapoo man in the 1830s wearing a silver nose ring. It is likely that some men also wore nose rings, including those with pendants, at the time of the French and Indian War.
Ornaments and Necklaces
Necklaces of wampum, imitation wampum or glass beads were likely to have been worn. Pendants could have consisted of large shells and silver disc. As allies of the French silver officer’s gorgets were also likely to have been issued to war leaders.
Silver bracelets and armbands were probably worn.
Breechclout and Apron
The primary item of dress for Kickapoo men was the breechclout. J. C. Bonin recorded of Native American men in the Ohio catchment although likely to be applicable to the Kickapoo 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.’
Kickapoo men are likely to follow the fashion for half leggings, 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 could 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 Kickapoo territory so it is likely that garters or other items were less often decorated with quillwork. The Kickapoo are likely to have obtained porcupine quills in trade.
Kickapoo moccasins were made of smoked buckskin. Catlin shows Kickapoo men wearing moccasins with a puckered centre seam along the instep and vamp.
A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermilion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.
Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant through the 18th century in adorning clothing and also came to be used as money. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.
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.
Kickapoo 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 Seven Years War the standard trade musket that armed the Kickapoo was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal either obtained in trade. 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.
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.
Biggs, William, Narrative of the Captivity of William Biggs among the Kickapoo Indians in Illinois in 1788, pp.11, 20, 31.
Callander, Charles, Pope Richard K. & Pope, Susan, Kickapoo: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 656-667.
Gibson, A. M., The Kickapoos: Lords of the Middle Border, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975, pp. 3-28.
McDonnell, Michael A, Masters of Empire; Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2015, p165.
Stevens, Sylvester, Donald Kent & Emma Woods (eds), Travels in New France by J C B, Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1941,
Larry Burrows for a major overhaul of this article