N. (Nehemiah) Matson.

French and Indians of Illinois river online

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painted in lai'ge letters the name — " Henri de
Tonti, la voyageur des Amerique,^'


After most of the soldiers had deserted from
Fort Creve Ceour, Tonti, with those remaining,
consisting of Father Gabriel, Father Zenobe and
three soldiers, abandoned the place. All tlie
valuables in the fort were put into two canoes,
and the party ascended the river as far as La
Yantum. Here they found quarters among the
Indians, with the intention of awaiting La Salle's
return from Canada. Tonti applied himself in
learning the Indian language — the two priests
were engaged in preaching to the natives — while
the soldiers Avere spending the honeymoon with
their squawks, whom they had recently married.

About three miles from the tow^n, in the midst
of a thick grove of timber. Father Gabriel and
Zenobe erected a temporary altar, and every third
day they repaired thither for prayer and medita-
tion. Here in this lonely spot, far aw^ay from the


noise and bustle of the town, the two holy Friars
would spend long summer days, from early morn-
ing until late at night, communing with the Vir-
gin, saints and angels.

Notwithstanding these priests preached and
prayed with these Indians almost daily, promising
them success in war, hunting, &c., if they would
embrace Christianity, but few converts were made.
Chassagoac, the head chief, having embraced the
Christian religion seven years before, under the
preaching of Father Marquette, still continued
in the faith. The chief, his household, and a few
of his friends, had taken the sacrament from the
hands of the priests, but all the other chiefs and
principal 'warriors denounced Christianity, ad-
hering to the religion of their fathers.

The wine brought from Canada for sacramental
purposes having been drank by La Forge, as })re-
viously stated, it became necessary to procure a
substitute, as the administration of the sacred
rights could not be dispensed with. During the
winter the priests gathered a quantity of wild
g^rapes, pressed out the juice and put it away in
the sacramental cask for future use. This wine
answered the purpose very well so long as the
weather remained cool, but during the summer it
soured and became unfit for use.

The time came to administer the sacrament.


Tonti, the three soldiers with their wives, Chas-
satj^oac and family, with a few friends, were
assembled in the coancil-house on the Sabbath
day to receive the sacred emblems. Father Ga-
briel, wrapped in his long black robe, with a gold
cross suspended from his neck, preached to them,
s[)eaking of Christ, of the apostles, of saints, and
of the kingdom to come. After preaching, all
knelt around the altar engaged in prayer, while
Father Gabriel made preparations to administer
the sacrament ; but he was horrified to find the
wine sour, and the miracle of tran substantiation
(that is, converting it into the real blood of Christ)
could not be performed, consequently the sacra-
mental service was postponed until another day.
Time hung heavy with the French ; days and
weeks passed awa}' ; spring was gone, the sum-
mer almost ended, and no new^s from La Salle.
In an Indian village, where there is neither hunt-
ing or war parties, nor national dances to keep
up the excitement, it has a dull, monotonous
appearance. Warriors lay under the shade of
trees, sleeping or amusing themselves in games
of chance, while squaws were at work in corn-
fields, or preparing food for their families. Naked
children were playing on the green or rolling in
the dirt, while young maidens, with their lovers,
w^ere gathering flowers in the grove, fishing on


the l)aiiks of tlie river, or rowing their canoes
across its waters, unconscious of the great calamity
that was about to befall them.


It was near the close of a warm day in the
latter part of August, 1680, when a scout arrived
with his horse in a foam of sweat, and shouting at
the top of his voice that the Iroquois were
marching against the town. All was now excite-
ment and confusion ; squaws screamed, pappooses
quit their plays on the green, and ran away to
their homes; warriors caught their weapons and
made preparations to defend their town and pro-
tect their squaws and little ones. During the
night fires were kept burning along the river
bank, and every preparation made to defend the
town in case it should be attacked. The warriors
greased their bodies, painted their faces red, and
ornamented their heads with turkey feathers;
war songs were sung, drums beat ; warriors
danced, yelled and brandished their war clubs to
keep up their courage. At last morning came,
and with it the savage Iroquois.

When news came of the approaching lonpiois,
a crowd of excited savages collected around
Tonti and his companions, whom they had previ-


ously suspected of trcMchcry, and charged theiiv
with being in league with their enemies. , i^^,
repc^rt having reached tliem that a numbei'^^of
Jesuit priests, and even La Salle himself was with
the Iroquois, and leading them on to the town.
The enraged warriors seized the blacksmith forge,
tools, and all the goods that belonged to the
French, and threw them into the river. One of
the warriors caught Tonti by the hair of his head
and raised his tomahawk to split his skull, but a
friendly chief caught the savage by the arm, and
his life was spared. Tonti, with that boldness
and self-possession which was characteristic of
him, defended himself against these charges, and
in order to convince them of his good faith,
offered to accom])any them to battle.

Father Gabriel and Zenobe were away at their
altar, spending the day in prayer and meditation,
and had no warning of the danger that awaited
them. On their return home late at night, they
were surprised to find the town in a whirlpool of
excitement; squaws were crying and bewailing
their fate, while the warriors were dancing, yelling
aiul offering up sacrifices to the Manito of battle.

On the arrival of the two priests, the savages
collected around them, charging them with treach-
ery, and being the cause of the Iroquois invading
their country. The priests, with uplifted hands,


called God to witness their innocence of the
charge, but their statement did not change the
minds of the excited Indians. A loud clamor was
raised for their blood, and a number of warriors
sprang forward with uplifted tomahawks to put an
end to their existence, but as they drew nigh and
were about to tomahawk them, Father Gabriel
drew from his bosom a small cj-old ima^-e of the
Holy Virgin, and held it up before their would-be
executioners. On seeing this sacred talisman the
Indians paused a moment, and then returned their
tomahawks to their belts. Father Zenobe after-
wards said this was another proof of the Virgin
protecting the Jesuits in North America.

During the night all the squaws and pappooses,
with the old Indians unable to bear arms, were
placed in canoes and taken down the river about
three leagues, to a large marshy island.* About
sixty warriors were left for their protection, and
all of them secreted themselves in the reeds and
high grass, so they could not be seen by the Iro-
quois. But the sequel shows that they did not
escape the vigilalice of the enemy, and this island
of supposed safety became their toml).

♦This island is situated between the river and Lake Depne,
and conslts of several hundred acres of marsh land, a part of
which is covered during the summer with reeds and bulrushes
Formerly it was surrounded by water, but from the wasliings of
the river the upper end is filled up so that in an ordinary stage
of water it connects with the main land.



At the time of the Iroquois invasion, there
were only about five hundred warriors at La
Vantum, the head chief, Chassagoac, and a large
portion of his braves having gone to Cahokia for
the purpose of attending a religious feast. But
this band, small as it was, boldl}^ crossed the river
at daylight, and met the enemy, whose number
was live times as large as their own. While they
were ascending the bluff a scout met them', say-
ing that the enemy were crossing the prairie
between the Vermillion and Illinois timbea\ As
the invaders approached the river timber, they
were surprised to meet the lUinoians, who were
lying in ambush, and received them with a deadly
fire. At this unexpected attack, tlie Iroquois
were stricken with a panic and fled from the field,
leaving the ground covered with the dead and
wounded. But they soon rallied and the fight
became bloody, arrows and rifle balls flying thick


aiul fast, wliilc the woods far and near resounded
witli tlie wild whoops of contending savages.

In the midst of the iight, Tonti undertook tlie
perilous task of mediating between the contend-
ing parties. Laying aside his gun and taking a
wampum belt in his hand, hokling it over his
head as a flag of truce, and amid showers of
arrows and bullets, he walked boldly forward to
meet the enemy. As he approached, the Iroquois
warriors collected around him in a threaten in i;
manner, one ot whom attempted to stab him to
the heart, but the knife striking a rib inflicted
only a long, shallow gash. As the savage
was about to repeat the blow a chief came
up, and seeing he was a white man, protected
him from further assault, and applied a bandage
to the wound to stop its bleeding. The flgliting
having ceased, a warrior took Tonti's hat, and
placing it on the muzzle of his gun, started
toward the lUinoians, who, on seeing it, supposed
he was killed and again renewed . the flght.
While the battle was in progress, a warrior
reported that three Frenchmen, armed with guns,
were with the Illinois forces, and firing on them.
When this announcement was nuxde the Ir<_K]uois
became enraged at Tonti, and again gathered
around him, some for killing and otliers for his
protection. One ©f the warriors caught liim by


the hair of his head, raising it up, and with his
long knife was about to take off liis scalp, when
Tonti, with his iron hand, knocked down his
assailant Others attacked Tonti with knives and
tomahawks, but he was again rescued from death
by the head-chief.

For a long time the battle raged, many of the
combatants on both sides being slain, and the yells
of the warriors could be lieard far away. But at
last the Illinoians, whose force was inferior to
their adversary, were overpowered and driven
from the field. The vanquished fled to their
town, with the intention of defending it or perisli
ill the attempt.

On the river bank, near the center of the town,
was their great council-house, surrounded by
stockades, forming a kind of fortification. To
this the remnant of the warriors fled, and in great
haste tore down the lodges and used the material
in strengthening their works.

The Illinoians had crossed the river in
canoes, but their pursuers having no means of
crossing at this point, were obliged to go up to
the rapids where they forded it. In a short time
the Iroquois attacked the town, setting fire to the
lodges and fortifications, which were soon a mass
of flames. Many of the beseiged were burned
in their strongholds, others were slain or taken


prisoners as they escaped from the flames ; a few
only succeeded in the preservation of their lives
bj escaping down the river. The town, with the
great council-house and fortifications, was de-
stroyed by fire, and nothing was left of them except
the blackened poles of which the lodges were

When the victory was completed they bound
the prisoners hand and foot, and commenced
torturing them to make them reveal the hiding
place of their squaws and pappooses.

On obtaining the necessary information a large
war party took the canoes left by the vanquished
Illinoians, and descended the river in search of
the squaws and pappooses. While these defense-
less beings were secreted among the reeds and
high grass of the island, they were discovered by
the savage Iroquois, and all of them slain. The
sixty warriors left to guard them fled on the ap-
proach of the enemy, crossing the lake and
secreting themselves in the thick river" timber.


On the following day after the l)attle, the vic-
tors made preparations to torture the prisoners;
and their acts of barbarity probably never have


been equaled by any of the savages of the west.
The warriors were formed ^ into a large circle,
and the prisoners, bound hand and foot, were
conveyed thither, when the work of torture com-
menced. The doomed prisoners were seated on
the ground awaiting their fate, some of whom
were weeping or praying, while others were
engaged in singing their death song. A warrior,
w4th a long knife, cut off the nose and ears of the
prisoners, and threw them to their hungry dogs.
Pieces of fle.sh were cut out of their arms and
breasts, while the prisoners sat writhing with
agony ; and the ground around them red with
human gore. The work of torture went on — the
executioners continued to cut off limbs and pieces
of flesh — and in some cases the bowels were taken
out and trailed on the ground, wdiile the groans
and screams of the victims in their death agonies
were terrible to witness.

Tonti and his companions looked on these bar-
barous acts of the Iroquois with horror and
astonishment, but dare not remonstrate as they
were prisoners also, and did not know but a like
fate awaited them.

While the torture was going on the two priests
were engaged in baptizing the victims, in order
to absolve them from past sins, and as each one
was about to expire, they would hold the crucifix


Ijefore his eyes, so he might look on it, and
through its divine efflfcacy his soul would be saved
from perdition.

When the prisoners were all dead, the warriors
cut out their hearts, roasted and eat them in order
to make them brave.

For a number of days the Iroquois continued
to rejoice over their victory, s|)ending the time
in singing and dancing around the scalps, and
causing the timber and river bluffs to re-echo with
their yells and wild whoops.


Two days after the Iroquois victory, the French
were set at liberty, and they departed in an old
leaky canoe. After going about six leagues, they
stopped at the mouth of a large creek to repair
the canoe and dry their clothing. While thus
engaged. Father Gabriel, who was always fund of
solitude, wandered ofi' into the thick river timber
for the purpose of prayer and meditation. When
the canoe was repaired, dothes dried, and time of
departure came. Father Gabriel was missing,
and they searched for him among the thick tim-
ber, but he could not be found. During the night
lires were kejtt burning along the I'iver bank, and
guns discharged to direct him to camp, but all


in vain. During the following day they searched
the woods far and near for the missing priest, and
Father Zenobe prayed to the Holy Virgin for his
safe return, but all to no purpose, so they gave
him up for lost, and continued their journey. For
many days they mourned the loss of the holy
father, as he was an old man of nearly three score
years, and devoted to the work of the church.

It was afterwards ascertained that Father Ga-
briel was taken prisoner by the Indians, carried
to their camp some miles off, where he was exe-
cuted, and while his friends were searching for
him those savages were dancing around his scalp.

While Father Gabriel was at prayer in the thick
timber, some distance from his companions, he
was approached by two Indians in a threatening
manner. With his head uncovered he arose to
meet them, with one hand pointing heavenward
and the other to the gold cross on his breast,
giving them to understand that he was a priest.
In vain he told them that he was their friend, and
had come from afar across the big waters to teach
them in the ways of truth and happinesss. Re-
gardless of his entreaties, they bound his hands
behind his back and led him off a prisoner to
their camp. A council was held over the
captives and it w^as decided that he should die.
A stake was driven into the ground, and Father



Gabriel with his hands and feet pinioned, tied to
it. Here, he sat on the ground bound to the
stake, with his long hair and flowing beard white
with the snows of seventy winters, waving to and
fro in the wind. The Indians formed a circle
around their victim, singing and dancing while
flourishing their war-clubs over his head, and oc-
casionally yelling at the top of their voices. This
performance continued for some time, while the
victim sat with his head bowed down, his eyes
fixed on the gold cross which hung on his breast,
and in silence awaited his doom.

[Jnder repeated blows of war-clubs, Father
Gabriel fell to the ground and soon expired. His
clothing and scalp were taken off by the sav^ages,
and his remains left to be devoured by wolves.

Thus perished Father Gabriel, the only heir of
a wealthy Burgundian house, who had given up a
life of ease and comfort, with all the enjoyment
of riches and society in the old world, to preach
the gospel to the heathens of the west, whom at
last became his murderers.

Four years after this affair, a trader at Furt St.
Louis bought of an Indian a small gold image of
the Virgin Mary, with Father Gabriel's name and
tliat of the owner engraved thereon. This image
was presented to Father Gabriel the day he sailed
for America, by the cardinal bishop of Nuriiiai)dy,


and he carried it in his bosom near his heart nntil
the day of his death. Some years afterward, this
golden image was carried back to France, and is
now to be seen in the museum at Rouen.


It was mid winter, three months after the mas-
sacre of the Illinois Indians, when La Salle, with
twelve companions, returned from Canada to look
after his little colony on the Illinois river. As
the travelers urged their canoes down the swollen
stream, their eyes were directed to Starved Eock,
where they expected to find Tonti within his
fortification. But no palisades were there — no
smoke ascended from its summit, nor signs oi hu-
man habitation could be seen. Passing down the
rapid current for about two miles, they were sur-
prised to find that the great town of the west had
disappeared. The large meadow, only a few
months before covered with lodges and swarming
with human beings, was now a lonely waste, a repre-
sentative of death and desolation. On the charred
poles which had formed the frame-work of lodges,
were many human heads, partly robbed of flesh
by birds of prey. Gangs of wolves fled at their
approach, and flocks of buzzards raised from their
hideous repast, and flew away to distant trees.


Even the burying ground showed marks of the
vindictive malice of the conquerors, they having
made war on the dead as well as the living.
Graves had been opened and bones taken out and
piled up in heaps, or broken into fragments and
scattered over the prairie. The scaffolds which
contained dead bodies, had been torn down and
their contents thrown hither and thither on the
prairie. Everywhere the blackened ground was
strewn with mangled bodies and broken bones of
the unfortunate Illinoians. The caches had been
broken open, the corn taken out and burned by
the victors.

In the midst of these ruins the conquerors had
erected an altar to the god of war, and the poles
surrounding it were capped with heads of victims
whose long hair and ghastly features were sicken-
ing to look upon. The stench arising from pu-
trefaction was so offensive, and the scene so
horrifying, that La Salle and his party turned
away from it, and encamped for the night on the
opposite side of the river. During the long
winter night the loneliness was increased by the
howling of wolves, and buzzards winging their
flight back and forth through the dark domain.

On the following morning La Salle returned to
the ruined town, and examined the skulls of many
of the victims, to see if he could find among tlicm


the remains of Tonti and liis party, but they all
proved to have been the heads of Indians.

On the bank of the river were planted six posts,
painted red, and on each of these was a figure of
a man drawn in white. La Salle believed these
figures represented six white men, prisoners in
the hands of Indians, it being the number of
Tonti's party.

La Salle and his companions again boarded
their canoes and started down the river, hoping to
learn something in relation to the fate of their
comrades, but nothing was discovered.

As the travelers passed down the river, they
saw on the island where the squaws and pappooses
had taken refuge, many human figures standing
erect, but motionless. With great caution they
landed from their canoes to examine these figures,
and found them to be partly consumed bodies of
squaws, who had been bound to stakes and then
burned. Fires had been made at their feet, con-
suming the flesh off their legs and crisping their
bodies, but leaving the remains bound to the
stakes, standing erect as though in life ; poles
were stuck into the marsh and pappooses placed
thereon, while others were hanging by the neck
from limbs of trees, with the flesh partly eaten
off" their bodies by birds of prey. Among these
remains no warriors were found, as they had fled


at the approach of the enemy, leaving the squaws
and pappooses to their fate. The sight of these
dead bodies was so revolting to look upon, that
the French turned away from them, not knowing
at what moment they too would fall victims to
the savage Iroquois.

A few years after this event, according to tradi-
tion. Father Zenobe, w^ith ofchers of his countrymen,
visited this island and found here a large piece of
ground strewn with human bones.

In the summer of 1829 a black man named
Adams, built a cabin opposite the upper end of
the island at the mouth of Negro creek. In the
following spring Mr. Adams discovered many
human bones sticking out of the bank on tlie
island, where the dirt had been washed away
by the floods. The same thing was noticed by
John Clark, Amos Leonard and other early settlers.
It appears the bones were covered up by over-
flowing of the island, and afterward brouglit to
light by washing away of the bank.



It is believed by the people of the west gener-
ally that Fort St. Louis was built on Buffalo Eock,
_as relics of an ancient fortification were found
here in the early settlement of the country. But
in comparing the various historical accounts of
this fort, as well as French and Indian traditions,
it will appear quite evident that it stood on Starved
Rock, and here its remains can now be seen. In
an old map, drawn in the days of La Salle, and
|)reserved with the antiquarian collection at Que-
bec, Fort St. Louis is located on the south. side of
the river, wdiereas Buffalo Rock is on the north
side. The description of this fort, with its sur-
soundings, as given by the explorers and missiona-
ries, would apply very well to Starved Rock, but
will not answer for Buffalo Rock. Fort St. Louis,
Rock Fort and Le Rocher, so often referred to in
history, are, without doubt, all the same place.

In the summer of 1721, thirty-nine years after


Fort St. Louis was built, Charlevoix, a Jesuit
priest, visited the Illinois country, and in his
journal gives an account of both of these rocks.
On Buffalo Rock he found an Indian village, and
in the midst of which was a rude fortiiication,
consisting of low earthworks, with stockades
constructed of cottonwood poles, and known as
Le Fort des Miames. About one league below
Buffalo Rock, on the opposite side of the river,
is Le Rochei'^ rising from the water's edge like a
castle wall, to the hight of one hundred and iifty
feet, and can be ascended at only one point. On
this rock, says Charlevoix, La Salle built a fort,

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