N. (Nehemiah) Matson.

French and Indians of Illinois river online

. (page 12 of 14)
Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 12 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

hunted down in the woods the same as deer.


This party of hunters had attacke4 the herd in
their lair, near where the boats of Captain Craig
were at anchor, shot three beeves, and had com-
menced skinnino^ them when the ^timber was
riddled with cannon shot. The hunters became
frightened, left their beeves undressed, and in
great haste returned to town without having the
slightest idea from what cause these hostile de-
monstrations were made by the troops.

A council of war was held among the officers, "
all of whom were in favor of burning the town,
and taking the men prisoners of war, as they had
without doubt, pointed out the location of the
boats to the Indians, and therefore were accessory
to the attack. The boats were run up to the
town, when Captain Craig, with an armed force
visited each house and took all the heads of fam-
ilies prisoners. Some of the men were still in
bed, and not allowed time to dress, but hur-
ried off to the boats with their clothing in their
hands. A torch was applied to every house, and
these with their contents were burned.

Women and children, with wild screams es-
caped from the burning buildings, and like a herd
of frightened deer collected on a vacant lot back
of the town. The church, which contained a
golden image and a crucifix, with other valuable
religious emblems, a present from the Bishop of


Quebec, was burned. The wind-mill, which
stood on the bank of the lake and filled with
grain and flour belonging to the citizens, was
burned, as well as stables, stock-yards, corn-cribs,

Felix Fontain, Michael LaCroix, Antoine Des
Champs and Thomas Forsyth, all of whom were
traders, with their stores filled with goods, which
was consumed by the flames. An old man named
Benit, formerly a trader, who had saved a large
amount of gold by the toil of half a century,
which he had laid away for old age. This gold
was secreted in his dv/elling, but finding it on fire
he rushed in to save his treasure, and perished in
the flames, and his bones were found among the
ashes on the following spring by a party of hunt-
ers who visited Peoria. Mrs. LaCroix, a lady of
refinement and of great personal attraction, who
in after years became the wife of Governor Rey-
nolds, being alone with four small children when
her house was set on fire, appealed to the soldiers
to save the clothes of herself and little ones, but
her appeal was in vain, and with her children only
she escaped from the burning building.

There is an incident connected with the burn-
ing of Peoria which to some extent explains the
barbarous conduct of the soldiers, and somewhat
palliates this offense against humanity. About


two months before Peoria was burned, General
Howard, then stationed at Portage du Sioux, sent
one of his soldiers, a young half-breed named
Snipkins, to Peoria, in order to ascertain if the
French were assisting the Indians in carrying on
a war against the settlements, as had been re-
ported. This messenger, by courtesy, was called
Howard's express, but in fact was a spy, learning
all he could from the citizens without letting his
business be known. This young scapegrace, in-
stead of returning to the army and reporting the
true state of affairs, according to orders, became
enamored with a girl and prolonged his stay until
the arrival of Captain Craig. And to escape pun-
ishment for disobeying orders, he reported to the
troops under Captain Craig that he was detained
by the people of Peoria against his will, being a
prisoner in their hands, which was afterwards
shown to be false. If this messenger had re-
turned to the army, and reported as he was ordered
to do, Craig's expedition would have been aban-
doned, and the destruction of Peoria averted.

A short time before Peoria was burned, Thom-
as Forsyth was appointed a government agent,
but this appointment was kept a secret by the
department at Washington, as it was thought, if
known, it would lessen his influence with the In-
dians, and probably prejudice his townsmen


against him. When Forsyth was made a prisoner
he showed his commission under the United
States seal to Captain Craig, but the incredulous
captain pronounced it a forgery.

"When the destruction of Peoria was completed
the boats started down the river on their return
homeward, carrying with them all the men as
prisoners of war. Two miles below the present
site of Alton, in the thick river timber, these
prisoners were set at liberty, without tents, pro-
visions, or means of returning to their families.

The women and children having been left at
the burned tov\'n without food or sheltei', were
therefore in a suffering condition, and without
assistance they could not be relieved from their
helpless situation. It was now late in the fall,
the sky overcast with gray clouds, and the cold
November winds howled through the forest trees.
With high winds were squalls of snow, and the
roaring and lashing of waves in the lake caused
mothers to draw their infants closer to their
bosoms to protect them trum the inclement
weather. To these destitute helpless beings all
was dark and cheerless; the lamentations of
mothers and cries of children were heard far
away, and touched the heart of a sympathizing
friend, altliough a savage. While in the midst
of trouble they discovered a lone Indian walking


leisurely along the beach of the lake, and with a
firm step approaching them. He carried a rifle
on his shoulder, a tomahawk and scalping knife
in his belt, and his face was painted in many col-
ors. Notwithstanding he was disguised by paint,
they recognized in the approaching Indian Gomo,
a friendly chief, who had a village where Chilli-
cothe now stands.

On the approach of Captain Craig's forces, the
inhabitants of Gomo's village fled from their
homes and secreted themselves in a thick grove
of timber a few miles w-est of the river. But
Gomo, with tw^o of his warriors, remained in the
heavy timber near the lake watching the move
ments of the soldiers, and when the boats departed
down the river they came forth from their hiding
place to assist their friends in distress. Gomo and
his w^arriors furnished provisions and shelter for
the destitute women and children, and provided
them canoes (those belonging to the French hav-
ing been destroyed by the soldiers.) to descend
the river. When supplied with an outflt for the
journey, the women with their little one started
down the river, camping each night on its banks,
without tents or shelter from the cold night air.
After many days of hardship and exposure,
drenched by rain and suffering from cold, they
reached Cahokia, wdiere they were provided for


bj their countrymen, and afterwards joined by
their husbands and fathers.

It has been stated that Captain Craig took the
women and children on the boats with the men,
and set them all at liberty on the east bank of the
Mississippi river. But this is incorrect, as the re-
port applied to a few families only. The family
of Thomas Forsyth, and perhaps one or two oth-
ers were taken on the boats, but I am informed
by Rene LaCroix and Hy polite Pilette, who were
present, (being boys at the time,) that the families
to which they belonged, with many others, went
down the river to Cahokia in bark canoes furn-
ished by the Indian chief Gomo, as previously

Captain Craig has been greatly villified for
burning Peoria, but it must be recollected that
he acted under the orders of Governor Edwards,
who approved of his conduct, and afterwards ap-
pointed him to an important office.

It appears Governor Edwards was misled by
false reports, which caused him to make war on
innocent people, and therefore should not be
censured for doing that which he believed, at the
time, to be his duty.



The descendants of the French who were born
at Peoria, only three are now living, and they of
course are far advanced in life. I visited these
persons, and listened to an account of their early
recollections of Peoria, as well as the traditions
of their ancestors. One of these descendants,
Robert Forsyth, lives on a farm in Missouri, six
miles west of St. Louis. He is a son of Thomas
Forsyth, who was a trader at Peoria, and held a
commission of an Indian agent from the govern-
ment when the town was destroyed. After the
destruction of Peoria, Forsyth was appointed an
agent for the Sacs and Foxes at Rock Island, and
held that position for many years. He was one of
the claimants for the land on which Peoria stands,
and his sou Robert, (above referred to,) prosecut-
ed these claims against the occupants, and realized
a large sum of money out of them.


Rene LaCroix, another of the descendants, lives
in Belleville, and like Forsyth obtained a large
sum of money out of the French claims. His
father, Michael LaCroix, a trader at Peoria, was
on his way to Canada with a pirogue loaded
with furs when the town was burned. While at
Montreal he heard that the Yankees had burned
Peoria and killed all its inhabitants, among whom
were his wife and children. With his lieart filled
with revenge, he joined the British army, be-
came an officer, and participated in many of the
liattles of the war. After the war was over, he
learned that his family were still living, and at
Cahukia, so he came west to join them. On the
following year Mr. LaCroix died, and a young
lawyer of Cahokia, named John Reynolds, after-
wards Governor of Illinois, married his widow.

Hy}>olite Pilette is a son of Louis Pilette, one
of the French land claimants, born at Peoria in
1799, and is now living on the American Bottom.
lie claims to be a great grandson of Captain
Richard Pilette, wh(^ in the year lH8t) built Le
Fort Des Miamis, on Buffalo Rock, and has now
iji his posse.-sion the sword, eagle and ei)aulets
woj'n by that distinguished personage.

While speaking of the burning of Peoria in
1812 by Captain Craig, he said : ''On a cold
Noveuiber morning, when a boy of thirteen years

MRS. besson's narrative. 225

of age, I was driven from home without coat, hat
or shoes ; my mother sick with the ague, and
with an infant in her arms, was compelled to leave
her bed, protected from the cold winds only by
an Indian blanket, while the house with all its
contents was devoured by the flames. My father
a prisoner, my mother sick, my brothers and sis-
ters almost naked, without food or shelter, and
not a dwelling of a white man within two hun-
dred miles. Thus we were turned out of doors
to starve and freeze, bat fortunately were res-
cued by some friendly Indians."

Three days after Peoria was burned, Mrs. Pi-
lette, with her children, were put in a canoe by
the Indians, and with her family started down
the river. After six days of exposure, suffering
from cold and hunger, they reached Cahokia,
where they were provided for by their country-

While speaking of the past, Pilette became
much excited, his eyes flashed with anger, his
voice was raised to a high key, and in broken
English he denounced the barbarous acts of Cap-
tain Craig, and frora^that time to the present, said
he "I hate Yankees."

MKS. besson's narrative.

While in East St, Louis, I heard of an old


lady by the name of Mrs. Besson, who was one
of the captives at the Chicago massacre, and is
probably the only one now living. I called on
this lady and listened to her narrative relating to
this affair, which to me was very interesting.
She said her early recollections were associated
with Chicago river, Lake Michigan, and Fort
Dearborn, by the side of which she spent many
of her childhood days, and gathered flowers on
the wild prairie, now. covered by the great metro-
polis of the west. Her maiden name was Mary
Lee, daughter of Charles Lee, who with his fam-
ily came to Fort Dearborn soon after it was built.
Tlieir dwelling stood on the beach of the lake
near the fort, and back of it was a small garden
enclosed by a rail fence. For a number of years
her father, Mr. Lee, was engaged in agricultural
pursuits, selling the products of his farm to the
garrison at high rates.

Mr. Lee made a large farm at a grove of tim-
ber on the south branch of Chicago river, four
miles from its mouth, where Bridgeport is now
located. The land near the lake, being either wet
or sandy, rendered it unfit for farming purposes,
therefore, it was necessary to go up the river to
make a farm, where the prairie was more rolling
and the soil rich. The communication between
Mr. Lee's residence and his farm duriuic the

MRS. besson's narrative. 227

spring and summer, was principally by a canoe
on the river, as the road connecting them crosses
a flat prairie covered with water much of the

Mr. Lee built two cabins on his farm, and em-
ployed a number of persons to work the land.
For some years the grove with its surroundings,
was known as '' Lee's Place," afterwards called
Hardscrable, and it was here the Indians killed
and scalped two persons, White and DeYow,
on the 7th of April, 1812, an account of which
is given in Mrs. Kinzie's earl}^ history of Chicago.

At the time of the Chicago massacre, Mr. Lee's
family consisted of his wife, an infant two months
old, his son John of sixteen years, Mary, now
Mrs. Besson, the subject of our sketch, twelve,
Lillie, ten, and two small boys.

When the troops left Chicago for Fort Wayne,
Mr. Lee with his family accompanied them, tak-
ing with him all his horses, but leaving behind a
large herd of cattle, which were on the following
day shot by the Indians. Mrs. Lee with her in-
fant and two youngest children were in a covered
wagon, while the two girls were on horseback ;
and all followed the army along the beach of the
lake, on their march toward Fort Wayne on the

Little Lillie was a very hansome child, a great


pet among the soldiers and citizens about the
fort, but she never before appeared so beautiful,
as on the morning they left Chicago. She was
mounted on a large gray horse, and to prevent
her from falling off or being thrown, was tied fast
to the saddle. She wore a white ruffled dress,
trimmed with pink ribbon, a black jockey hat with
a white plume on one side. As her horse pranced
and champed the bits at the sound of martial
music, little Lillie, in a queenly manner sat in
her saddle chatting gaily with her sister Mary,
who rode by her side. As the soldiers threw
kisses at her slie would return them in her merry
glee, talking and laughing mirthfully with many
of her acquaintai)ces. Her young heart was made
happy by the excitement of the morning, and had
no warning of tlie awful fate that awaited lier,
less than one hour afterwards.

Soon the guns of five hundred savages were
raised against the troops, and by their murderous
fire a large portion of the brave band were
stricken down.

During the battle, little Lillie was wounded
and fell from her seat, but still hung by the cord
which bound her to the saddle. While in this
condition the frightened horse ran back and forth
until he was caught by an Indian, and tlie child
rescued fi-ora her perilous situation. When thew

MRS. bksson's narrative. 229

battle was over AYaupekee, a chief who had often
been at Mr. Lee's house, and trotted little Lillie
on his knee, was much grieved to see her thus
wounded, as he loved the child as though she
were his own daughter. On examining Lillie's
wound and finding it mortal, the chief put an
end to her suffering with a stroke of his toma-
hawk. Waupekee afterwards said, to tomahawk
little Lillie, was the hardest thing he ever did,
but he could not bear to see her suffering.

Mr. Lee and his son John were killed in the
battle, and the two young children fell victims to
the savages, while Mrs. Lee and infant, with Mary
were taken prisoners of war,

Mrs. Lee fell into the hands of Waupekee, who
had a village on the Des Plaines river, about
twenty miles from Chicago. This chief treated
his prisoners kindly, and tried to induce her to
marry him, notwithstanding he already had three'
wives. But she declined the marriage proposi-
tion, hoping some day to be ransomed, and again
restored to friends and civilization.

During the winter Mrs. Lee's child took sick,
and after all the known remedies of the Indian
doctor had failed to remove the disease, the chief
proposed to take it to Chicago for medical treat-
ment A Frenchman named DuPin, had taken
possession of Kinzie's house soon after the de-


Btractioii ol the fort, and here carried on a trade
with tlie Indians for a number of years.

On a cold day in the latter part of the winter,
"Waupekee wrapped the sick infant in blankets,
mounted his pony and with his charge started for
Chicago. On arriving at DuPin's residence, Wau-
pekee carefully laid his package on the floor.
"What have you there ?" asked the trader. To
which the chief replied, " A young raccoon,
which I have brought you as a present." And
unwrapping the package there lay the sick infant,
almost smothered in the thick folds of the blank-
ets. The trader made a prescription for the child,
after which the chief carried it back to its moth-
er, and it finally got well.

The trader became interested in the welfare of
Mrs. Lee, and offered Waupekee a large amount
of goods for his })risoner. The offer was accept-
ed, tlie prisoner brought to the trading house and
set at. liberty. Soon after Mrs. Lee's liberation,
this lonely captive widow became Madam Du-

In the division of prisoners after the battle,
Mary Lee was taken to an Indian village on tlie
Kankakee river, and on the following spring was
taken to St. Louis and ransomed bv General
Clark, the Indian af^ent. Some vears afterward
she married a French Creole by the name of Bes-


son, but is now a widow, living with a distant
connection of her husband's. Mary never met
her mother after that fatal day, and for many
years supposed she was killed with the otlier mem-
bers of the family, but subsequently learned
of her captivity, liberation, marriage and death.


In every French settlement of the west a Je-
suit missionary preceded it, and much credit is
-due to them for preparing the minds of the In-
dians to the introduction of their countr3aiien.
Many of these missionaries were talented and
efficient bearers of the cross, who devoted their
whole lives to the conversion of heathens. They
traveled througli all parts of the west, from Can-
ada to New Orleans, sacrificing the comforts of
civilization for the purpose of Christianizing the


As early as the year 1640, Father Nicollet, a
French Jesuit priest from Canada, preached to
the Indians within the limits of Illinois. Tliis
devout priest traveled through the lake country
in advance of all other missionaries, preaching to
the Indians and telling them the story of the
cross. He visited Green Bciy in 1638, and in all
probability was the first white man that ever


rowed a canoe on the waters of Lake Micliigan.
He passed down the west side of the lake to the
mouth of Chicago river, where he met a large
party of Illinois Indians, engaged in fishing.
Here Father Nicollet remained many days,
preaching to the Indians, some of whom were
converted and received baptism. At the month
of the river he raised a cross, and tanght the In-
dians to look upon it when trouble and
misfortune overtook them, and through its effica-
cy all their evils would be expelled. The spot
where the cross was erected was hallowed by the
Indians, and pointed out' to Marquette on his
visit to the place twenty-three years afterwards.

Father Nicollet lived ten ^^ears among the sav-
ages, without meeting a white man, and became
an Indian in dress, habit and language, still re-
mained a zealous Catholic, but at last he returned
to civilization because he could not live without
the sacrament.

After Marquette, probably the most devoted
and successful missionary -was Father Allonez,
who established missions in various parts of the
west. He came to America when a youna' man.
and spent a long life in preaching to the Indians,
and left his bones in the wilds of the west. He
established a mission at St. Marv's, one at Green
Bay, and one at St. Joseph, but the last and most


importaiit ones were kt Caliokia and Kaskaskia.

In the year 1632, Father Allo.nez and F'ather
Hugues Pinet accompanied La Salle in his voyage
to the month of the Mississippi, and they
pi-eached to the Indians at every village where
they stopped. On the return of this exploring
party, they halted several days at Cahokia, which
at that time was a large Indian village. The na-
tives supplied the voyagenrs with corn and
buffalo meat, and the best lodges in the village
were provided for their occupation.

When La Salle's party were about to continue
their journey, the Indians prevailed on the two
})riests to remain with them, and teach them the
word of life. The devoted priests consented to
remain, and set about Christianizing the heath-
ens. They visited Kaskaskia and other Indian
villages, baptizing a large number of warriors,
and enrolled their names in the church book.
The Indians everywhere welcomed the priests,
listening to their teachings and doing their bid-
ding. The}^ learned the story of Christ's
crucifixion, and with a trembling voice repeated
it to their friends They not only received bap-
tism at the hands of the priests, but allowed
themselves to be sprinkled with holy water,
which they believed blotted out all their past sins
and saved them from perdition.


For twenty years Father Pi net remained at
Cahokia preaching to the Indians, but on feeling
the infirmities of age he went to Fort St. Lonis,
where he died on the loth of July, 1704, in the
seventy-ninth year of his age. They buried him
in the French cemetery on the river bank, at the
west end of LeRocher, and over his grave was
erected a large monumental cross hewn out of
red cedar.

About the year 1814, an old man with long
white hair, which hung in matted clusters over
his shoulders, by the name of Wigby, appeared
among the Indians, and for a number of, years
preached, at different villages along the Illinois
river. Nothing is known of this man's history,
except that he had been for a long time among
the Indians on the Wabash, and spoke their lan-
guage well. It is believed that he was a Baptist,
as he immersed all his converts, telling them that
this was necessary for their" admission into the
happy hunting grounds beyond the skies.

Wigby lived at Senachwine's village, and was
accompanied by that chief in all his ministerial
labors among the different bands. Senachwine
was baptized by him, and professed to be a Chris-
tian, but the missionary could not induce him to
abandon polygamy and put away his many wives.

Four years after Wigby came to the country


he died, and was buried on a high bhiff overlook-
ing the village of Senachwine, and his grave was
pointed out to some of the early settlers.

Among the energetic and successful Protestant
missionaries of this country, was Elder Jesse
Walker, of the Methodist denomination, who
acquired great celebrity thoughout the west. For
many years Walker was engaged in holding camp
meetings in the soutli part of the State, but in the
year the 1824 he came north and established
missions along the frontier settlements.

Elder Walker was a short, heavy-set man, very
dark skin, walked erect, with an independent
pompous bearing, and possessed great energy and
force of character. He was a bold undaunted
missionary, bearing the standard of the cross
triumphantly into the wilds of the west, among
the red man as well as the white.

In 1826 Elder Walker established a mission
school among the Indians at a place called Mission
Point, on the Illinois river, a short distance above
Ottawa. He also established the first church at
Chicago ; died and was buried at Plainfield, about
the time the settlement commenced there.

A Baptist missionary by the Jiame of Adam
Paine, preached among the Indians with great

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14

Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 12 of 14)