N. (Nehemiah) Matson.

French and Indians of Illinois river online

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and part of its palisades were still standing. The
block-house, store-house and dwellings had been
burned by the Indians, and everything about the
fort was in ruins, although it had been occupied
by his countrymen only three years before.*

*A more romantic place for building a fort could not be found
in the western country, and for natural defenses or picturesque
appearance, it is without a parallel in history. The many re-
markable events connected with this old relic of antiquity, if
• correctly given, would rival the works of fiction, surpassing
even the wild romances of feudal times.

The river at this point assumes a new character— no longer a
dull, sluggish stream— but is wide, shallow and rapid, and its
broad channel divided by many beautiful islands. Some of
these islands are now under cultivation, while others are cov-
ered with forest trees, the tall cottonwood and out-spreading
elms adding beauty and romance to the surrounding scenery.

Some of these islands in the river, together with the land on
which Starved Rock stands, belongs to Col. D. F. Hitt, of Ottawa,
who entered it nearly forty years ago.


In the spring- of 1680, while La Salle with two
companions were on their way from Fort Creve
Ceonr to Canada, they stopped at Starved Kock,
and their account of it is the first given in history.
While they were rowing their canoe up the rapid
stream, they noticed on the right shore a remark-
able clifi of rocks, rising from the water's edge
and towering above the forest trees. Landing
from their canoes they ascended this rock, and
found it to be a natural fortress, where but little
labor would be required to make it impregnable,
so that a few soldiers could hold it against a host
of savages.

When La Salle arrived in Canada he sent word
to Tonti to fortify this rock on the Illinois river
and make it his stronghold, as it was more desira-
ble than Fort Creve Ceour. Although circum-
stances prevented Tonti from obeying the orders
of his superior, nevertheless a fort was built here
two years afterwards, and around it clustered the
first colony in the Mississippi valley.

In the fall of 1682 La Salle, with about forty
soldiers under his command, commenced building
a fort on the summit of Starved Eock. The
place of ascending the rock was improved by
breaking off projecting crags and cutting steps
in the steep pathway. The stunted cedars which
crowned the summit were cut away to make room


for a fortification, and the margin of the rock for
about two-thirds of its circumference was encir-
cled bj earthworks. Timbers were cut on the
river bottom below, and by hand dragged up the
stair-like pathway to build a block-house, a store-
house and dwellings, and protect a large portion
of the summit with palisades. A platform w^as
built on the trunks of two leading cedars that
stood on the margin of the cliff, and on which a
windlass w^as placed to draw water out of the
river for supplying the garrison. All the arms,
stores, &c., belonging to the French were carried
here and placed within the stockades, and the
small cannon, which they had brought in a canoe
from Canada, was mounted upon the ramparts.

When the fort was completed the French flag
was swung to the breeze, the cannon fired three
salutes in honor of Louis XIY, and the soldiers
shouted Vive le roi.

The fort was named St. Louis or Rock Fort,
and in dedicating it Father Zenobe called on the
Virgin to bless it, to keep it in the true faith, and
protect it from the enemies of the cross.

From the wooden ramparts of St. Louis, which
were as high and almost as inaccessible as an
eagle's nest, the French could look down on the
Indian town below, and also on the great meadow
which lay spread out before them like a map.


Two years before, this meadow was a scene of
carnage — a waste of death and desolation, black-
ened by fire and strewn with the ghastly remains
of the slain in an Iroquois victory — but things
were now changed ; Indians to the number of six
thousand had returned, and the river bank for a
mile in extent was covered with lodges. Indians
from the neighboring villages came here to trade,
bringing with them venison, buffalo meat, furs,
&c., to exchange for goods. At one time there
were encamped around the fort not less than
twenty thousand Indians, who came here to trade
and seek protection from their much dreaded en-
emies — the Iroquois.

La Salle being now established within his
stockades, turned his attention to trading with the
Indians, supplying them with goods and taking
furs in exchange. Emigrants from Canada came
here and settled near the fort, many of whom
were engaged in trade with the Indians. Some
of these adventurers married squaws, lived in the
village with the Indians and adopted their dress,
habits and customs. The colony was named
Louisiana, in honor of the king of France, and
according to a map drawn at that time it included
within its boundaries all the Mississippi valley.
This vast territory La Salle claimed dominion
over by virtue of his patent, and he commenced


dividing it out to his friends, by giving them
permits to trade with tlie Indians. lie author-
ized Richard Bosley to establish a trading post at
Cahokia, and Phillip De Beuro one at Green Bay,
but compelling them to pay a royalty to him on
all goods sold and furs bought.


As soon as a trading post was established at
Fort St. Louis, Indians from different parts of the
country came hither to exchange furs and pelts
for goods, which was done at large profit to the
traders. Tomahawks, knives, &c., made of flint
were superseded by those of steel ; blankets, as
wearing apparel, took the place of the heavy buf-
falo robe, atid to the same extent guns superseded
bows and arrows. A blanket worth three dollars
in Quebec, would bring one hundred dollars in
furs, and a tomahawk that cost fifty cents would
sell for twenty dollars among the Indians.

Two years after Fort St Louis was built, La
Salle, leaving Tonti in command, returned to
Canada, and from thence sailed to France. Being
assisted by the court of France, he on the follow-
ing year, with three ships loaded with emigrants,
sailed to the Gulf of Mexico for the purpose of
establishing a colony at the mouth of the Missis-


sippi river. This enterprise failed, and La Salle
was assassinated bj some of his own men while
on his way to Illinois'^

Although La Salle was dead his colony on the
Illinois river continued to flourish, and the fur
trade became a source of great wealth. For
eighteen years this trade was conducted by Tonti
and La Frost, the former living at St. Louis, and
the latter in Canada. Furs were sent east in
canoes, and in a like manner goods for the In-
dian trade were brought west. In navigating
the lakes a number of canoes were lashed together,
and with sails hoisted and oars applied, they
would coast along the shore. The connection
between the lake and Illinois river was effected
by crossing the portage through Mud lake, be-
tween Chicago and Des Plains river.f


Two years after building Fort St. Louis, it was
attacked by a large body of the Iroquois Indians,

*In the summer of 1686, Tonti, at his own expense, with forty-
men in canoes, descended the river to the Gulf of Mexico, in
search of La Salle, but did not succeed in finding him. Again
in 1689 he made a like tour in search of the remnant of the
colony, and for the purpose of finding the bones of the great
explorer in order to carry them back with him ; but this expe-
dition, like the other, proved a failure.

tThis passage from the Illinois river to Lake Michigan, was
known by the Indians long before the French came to the


who held it in siege six days. Tonti was in com-
mand of the fort, which contained at the time
fifty French soldiers, and about one hundred
Indian allies, and w^itli this small force put the
besiegers to flight.

It was a bright clear day in the latter part of
May, and the great meadow was green with grass,
intermixed with flowers of various hues ; the

country, and it was used by the American pioneers in the early
settlement of the west.

In the spring of 1826, John Hamlin, a trader at Peoria, having
on hand about one hundred barrels ot pork, which he had re-
ceived from settlers in exchange for goods, conceived a novel
idea of shipping it to Fort Dearborn, (now Chicago), where a
good price could be obtained. He hired a keel boat which had
brought emigrants to Peoria, loaded it with pork, and started
it up the river in charge of three boatmen. On the following
day Mr. Hamlin, accompanied by Elder Walker and Joseph
Smith (Dad Joe) started for Fort Dearborn in a small Mackinaw
boat loaded with furs. The wind being from the south, with
all the sails hoisted the boat went up the river at the rate ot ten
miles per hour, and overtook the keel boat near the mouth of
Bureau creek.

On reaching the rapids it was found impossible to get the
loaded keel boat up the strong current, so it was unloaded and
taken up empty, and the pork carried up with many loads of
the Mackinaw boat. W^hen above the rapids the pork was
again loaded into the keel boat, and she continued on her way
toward the lake.

At the mouth of Des Plains river the keel boat was unloaded
and sent back to Peoria, while the Mackinaw boat continued
on her way to Fort Dearborn. After unloading the furs the
Mackinaw boat returned to the mouth of Des Plains, and at
different loads carried the pork through to the fort.

The Mackinaw boat, when heavily loaded, drew three feet and
a half of water, but the streams being high it pa.«;sed the portage
from Des Plains through Mud lake into Chicago river without
getting aground.


trees were in full leaf, and the air was fragrant
with blossoms of the wild plum and crab-
^..apple ; birds were singing among the branches of
trees, and squirrels chii-ping in the thick river
timber, while at a distance was heard the sweet
notes of the robin and meadow lark. In the
shade of the willows and elms on the river bank
lay the doe and her fawn, lulled to slumber by
the hum of the wild bee and grasshopper.

All was quiet at Fort St. Louis, and the inmates
were delighted with the beauty of the surround-
ing scenery. To the west, in plain view, lay the
great town of La Yantum, with its many hundred
lodges built along the bank of the river, and
around which were collected thousands of human
beings. On the race track, above the town, war-
riors mounted on ponies were practicing horse-
manship, while far in the distance squaws were
seen engaged in planting corn or gathering greens
for. their family meal.

It was Sabbath morning, the fourth after
Easter; all the inmates of Fort St. Louis were
dressed in their best apparel, and seated under
the shade of cedars, awaiting religious services.
Father Zenobe, dressed in his long black robe,
with a large gold cross hanging from his neck,
was about to commence services, when a lone
Indian was seen on the bottom prairie going west-


ward, and urging his pony forward at the toj) of
its speed.

Father Zenobe after conduding his sermon,-,
was about to administer the sacrament, wlien the'
sentinel at the gate fired his gun to give an alarm.
At this signal the meeting broke up, and every
one ran to his post, thinking that the fort was
about to be attacked. On looking in the direc-
tion of the town everything appeared in commo-
tion. Warriors mounted on ponies were riding
back and forth at full gallop, squaws and pap-
pooses running hither and thither in wild con-
fusion ; drums beating, warriors yelling, while the
cries and lamentations of the frightened people
could be heard even at the fort. Tonti, with three
companions, came down from the fort, boarded a
canoe, and with all haste proceeded down the
river to ascertain the cause of this excitement,
and upon his arrival the mystery was explained.

A scout had arrived with the intelligence that
a large body of Iroquois were only ten leagues
distant and marching on the town. The tragedy
of four years previous was fresh in their minds,
and fearing a like result caused them to go wild
with terror. The chiefs and warriors collected
around Tonti, beseeching him to protect them
from the scalping knives and tomahawks of tlieir
enemies, in accordance with La Salle's promise.


Tonti in reply said that his force was not sufficient
to afiPord them protection, but advised them to
collect their warriors and defend the town. The
French, who lived in the town with their wives
and a few Indian friends, fled to the fort for secu-
rity, but the warriors, being seized with a panic
and fearing another massacre, in great haste fled,
some going down the river in canoes, while
others mounted their ponies and galloped west-
ward across the country. Soon after their
departure the invaders came, two thousand strong,
but they found a barren victory, as not one living
soul was left in La Vantum.

When the Iroquois found their intended vic-
tims had fled, they attacked the fort and held it
in siege six days. For a number of days the Indians
continued to fire on the fort from a neighboring
cliff, but without producing any effect. The fort
not returning the fire, emboldened the assailants,
and each day they came closer, and occupied the
timber near the base of the rock, with the inten-
tion, no doubt, of making an assault. But when
they were in close range, the guns were brought
to bear on them, and they received the fire of
both muskets and cannon. Many were killed,
others wounded, while the survivons, being
stricken with a panic, fled in great haste, leaving
their dead ^nd wounded behind.


No Iroquois Indians were ever seen in tliat
vicinity afterwards, and they never made another
raid on the lUinoians.

For many days after the Indians were repulsed,
the French remained within their fortifications,
and did not venture down from the rock until
convinced that the enemy had left the country.



In the year 1687, Tonti with fifty French sol-
diers and two hundred Illinois warriors, went to
Canada and joined the army of Governor Den-
on ville, in an expedition against the Indians south
of Lake Ontario. Denonville's army was victo-
rious ; many towns along the Mohawk river were
burned and a large number of scalps taken.
After this victory, the army returned to Canada
where it was disbanded, when Tonti with his
soldiers and Indian allies returned to Illinois.
On their return they were accompanied by a
number of emigrant families, among whom were
many women, wives and daughters of traders
and soldiers. For weeks the voyageurs in their
canoes coasted along the shore of the lakes, and
camping at night on its beach without tents to
protect them from the inclement weather. On
reaching the mouth of Chicago river they ascend-
ed it, crossing the portage into Des Plains, and


soon this large fleet of canoes was sailing down
the Illinois river.

It was a beautiful clear morning in midsum-
mer; the bright silvery rays of the sun reflected
from the rippling waters of the river, as it glided
swiftly by. The fresh cooling breeze and the
songs of the birds added much to the loveliness
of the scene. The occupants of Fort St. Louis,
after the morning prayer and exhortation by
Father Allonez, were collected along the brink of
the rock, watching the finny tribe as they sported
over the sand and stones in the clear shallow
water. While thus engaged they were startled
to hear the sound of a bugle up the river, and on
looking in that direction were much surprised to
see the broad stream covered with canoes, fast
approaching the fort. On came this large fleet,
with flags flying, drums beating, and the loud
cheering of both French and Indians announc-
ing the return of Tonti's victorious army. As
this fleet of canoes passed swiftly down the rapid
current, the cannon on the fort boomed forth loud
peals of welcome to returning friends.

There was great rejoicing at the fort; wives
and daughters of soldiers and traders had come
thither to join their friends after years of separa-
tion, and their meeting was an affecting one.

On the night following the return of Tonti's


army, a wine supper and ball was given in honor
of the occasion, and the great hall of the fort
rang with songs, jests, music, and other demon-
strations of jo}^ Ladies from the fashionable
society of Montreal gave an air of refinement to
the ball, and such a gay party was never before
witnessed in the wilds of the west. Much wine
was drank, music sounded, and the joyous laugh
of the dancers rang forth on the clear night air.
Father AUonez having spent twenty years among
savages in the west, without mingling in refined
society, became so overjoyed by the effects of
wine and gay party, that his soul was filled with
rapture, and as he passed to and fro among the
fair ladies, offered to bestow his blessing upon

While the French at the fort were enjoying
themselves, the Indians at La Yantum were also
ha^'ing a gay time in honor of returning friends.
Many of their favorite dogs were killed, a feast pre-
pared, and they danced around the scalps taken in
their late expedition. The sound of their drums
and the yells of dancers were heard at the fort,
and were responded to by the booming of cannon.


For a number of years the Winnebagoes of the
north had been trespassing on the Illinoians by

665446 A


hunting on their lands. During the winter,
Winnebago hunters would go to Lake Weno to
collect furs ; sometimes visit the Illinois river
and kill large quantities of buffalo, and leave their
carcasses as food for wolves or to decay upon the
prairie. An ill feeling had existed between these
tribes for a long time; a number of hunters from
each had been killed, and open hostilities were
about to commence. The Illinoians were collect-*
ing their warriors from the different villages for
the purpose of invading the eneray's^ country,
while the Winnebagoes were making preparations
for a raid on the towms along the Illinois river.

Tonti, knowing that a war would ruin the fur
trade, and perhaps endanger his own fortified
position, resolved on a bold scheme to prevent it.
Knowing that the Winnebagoes would collect at
their principal town located high up on Rock
river, about the middle of September, for the
purpose of holding their annual feast, resolved to
meet them there with his Illinois allies, and
adjust all variances.

Tonti, with twenty French soldiers and twenty
Illinois chiefs, among whom was Chassagoac, the •
principal chief of the tribe, all mounted on ponies,
started for the Winnebago country. On arriving
at their principal town where the different bands
had assembled, they were received as friends and


treated with much respect. Tlie cliiefs and war-
riors collected around the French, most of whom
had never looked upon the face of a white man
before, and regarded them as superior beings.
The visitors were entertained in tlie council-
house, and feasted on dog meat, honey, and all
the delicious food which the country afforded.
On the following day after their arrival the chiefs
and principal warriors held a religious dance, and
the strange performance greatly amused the

The dancers were naked and their bodies
painted, some with white and others with red or
black clay. On the head of each was a wreath
of turkey feathers and a pair of deer's horns,
causing them to look more like devils than hu-
man beings. At the sound of drums, flutes and
rattling gourds, the dancing commenced, and con-
tinued without cessation until the dancers became
exhausted. As the loud strains of music anima-
ted the dancers, they would leap, hop, and jump
up and down in quick succession, with their
mouths open, tongues banging out, and occasion-
ally yelling at the top of their voice*

Peace was made between the tribes, the wam-

*This remarkable dance of the Winnebagoes is a religious
exercise, and only performed at their annual feast. I have
witnessed a similar performance among the howling Dervishes
in Grand Cario, Egypt.


pum belt exchanged, and as a pledge of good faith
the Winnebagoes presented Chassagoac, the head
chief, with two of their most beautiful maidens
for wives. With these two maidens astride of
their ponies, and a great variety of presents, Tonti,
with his French companions and Indian allies,
returned to Fort St. Louis.


After the brutal assassination of La Salle in
Texas by some of his own men, his brother,
Father Cavelier, a Jesuit priest, with five com-
panions, started for Fort St. Louis, on the Illinois
river. In an old leaky canoe they ascended the
Mississippi, passing the mouth of the Ohio and
Missouri, and at last reached the placid waters of
the Illinois. After two months of hard labor in
forcing their frail craft up the swift current of the
Father of Waters, annoyed by musquitoes, and
suffering from hunger, they at last reached their
destination, where they received a hearty wel-
come from their countrymen.

On the 14th day of September, 1688, while
rowing their canoe up the rapid current, they
saw on the right bank a high rocky cliff, towering
above the forest trees, and crowned with palisades.
As they drew near, a troop of Indians, headed by
a white man in French uniform, descended from


tlio rocky fortress and discliarged their guns in
lionor of their arrival, sliouting at the same time,
Vive le roi. The voyageurs landed from their
canoe, ascended the cliff, and were within the
stockades of Fort St. Louis. Here were block
and stone houses, a magazine, and a small chapel,
as well as many Indian lodges, occupied by the
allies of the French. Father Cavelier, on
viewing the scene around him, was so overjoyed
that he fell on his knees, and with uplifted hands
returned thanks to the Holy Virgin for her
guardian care in protecting him from evil in his
long and dangerous journey.

At the time Father Cavelier's party arrived at
Fort St. Louis, Tonti was absent on a mission of
peace in the Winnebago country, but they were
kindl}^ received by his lieutenant, Bellefountain.
The clothes of the travelers were torn into frag-
ments while rambling through the cane-brakes
and chaparrel^ at the south, so the kind lieuten-
ant supplied them with new apparel out of the
garrison stores A fine satin robe, with a gold
cross and other sacred emblems, had been sent
from France a short time before by the bishop of
Rouen, to be presented to the most devoted
Jesuit in North America. The priests of Quebec
awarded this gift to Father Chrisp, who had
spent a long life among tlie Indians of Lake


Huron, but of late, chaplain at Fort St. Louis.
The cloak and gold emblems were sent west, but
before they arrived Father Chrisp had died, con-
sequently, they remained at the fort unclaimed.
In the presence of all the soldiers, and a large
collection of Indians, Bellefountain presented
Father Cavelier with these articles, and in rettirn
the holy father raised his hands heavenward, in-
vokmg God's blessing on all the occupants of
Fort St. Louis.

When Tonti returned to the Fort, he was sur-
prised and much delighted to meet with his
countrymen, especially the brother of his esteemed
friend, La Salle. On inquiring after the health
and prospects of La Salle, the unscrupulous
priest replied that he had left him in excellent
health and spirits, and his new colony at the
mouth of the Mississippi was likely to be a great
success. The object of the priest in concealing
the death of La Salle, was to use his credit in
drawing on Tonti for means to carry him to Can-
ada, and from thence to France. Consequently,
in his brother's name, he drew on Tonti for four
thousand livres worth of furs, which were placed

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Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 5 of 14)