N. (Nehemiah) Matson.

French and Indians of Illinois river online

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in two canoes, and the party continued on their
way toward Canada. On arriving at Quebec, the
party sold their furs and with the proceeds of th'e
sale paid their passage to France.


The fate of La Salle, and the imposition prac-
ticed on Tonti by the hypocritical priest and his
companions, was not known at Fort St. Louis
until the following year.


For more than fifty years Chassagoac was head
chief of the Illinois Indians, and by them he was
loved, honored and obeyed. Circumstances caused
this chief to figure extensively in history, and by
the early French explorers he is represented as a
noble specimen of his race. In a letter of Father
Zenobe's to a friend at Quebec, the chief is de-
scribed as being very large, with high forehead
and sharp, expressive eyes. In his nose he "wore
a large ring made of buffalo horn, and around his
ankles were wreaths of small bells constructed of
turtle shells, while on his head was a crown of
eagle feathers.

In the gallery of Jesuit collection in the city
of Rouen, can now be seen a life-sized portrait of
Chassagoac, which shows him to have been a fine
specimen of his race, physically as well as men-
tally. Whether the artist painted this portrait
from life or description is not known, but it is a
good representation of the person described in

Father Hennepin in his journal says, Chassa-


goac for a time was a true disciple of Christ, but
afterwards became a child of perdition, having
reference no doubt to his plurality of wives,
which practice the priest could not persuade him
to give up. On accouut of his Christian faith,
and his fidelity to the French colony, the bishop
of Rouen sent him many presents, consisting of
gold images, crosses, crucifixes, &c. These pres-
ents were kept sacred, and no doubt had much to
do in strengthening his faith in religion.

It was a bright day in the latter part of the
summer of 1714 — all was quite at La Yan-
tum — warriors were fishing along the river bank
or engaged in shooting at a mark ; squaws at-
tending to their domestic affairs or looking after
scores of naked children playing in the dirt. All
of a sudden the death-knell w^as heard, throwing
the whole town into confusion, when old and
young were seen running hither and thither to
learn the cause. The great chief, Chassagoac, in
the fullness of his years, had fell dead while
standing at the entrance of his lodge. For his
death all were in mournino-, and the wailino- and
lamentation of the people were heard at the fort
nearly two miles distant. On the following day
the French at Fort St. Louis, as well as those
belonging to the colony, attended the funeral of
the fallen chief and gave him a Christian burial.


His many wives, children and grandchildren to-
gether with all the warriors of the town, blacked
their faces, and with loud wailing followed the
remains to the grave. Father Felix pronounced
absolution over the body, sprinkling it with holy
water, according to Jesuit custom, and offered
prayers to the Holy Virgin to admit the spirit to
the paradise above.

A grave having been dug on a gravelly knoll
in the Year of the town, the beloved chief, with
all the presents given him by the priest, consist-
ing of gold and silver crosses, images, crucifixes,
&c., were buried with bim. A mound was
raised over the grave, on which Father Felix
erected a large cross bearing a Latin inscription.

On a knoll immediately back of the old town
of Utica, the mound which is supposed to have
been raised over Chassagoac is still to be seen, as
well as the cavity in the earth near by from
which the dirt to erect it was taken.

About sixty years ago, Waba, a Pottowatomie
chief of some note, learning from tradition that
valuable trinkets were buried in this mound,
opened it and robbed it of its treasure.



In the year 1684, La Barre, Governor of Can-
ada, being jealous of La Salle's power and in-
fluence, concocted a plan to defeat his enterprise,
and thereby appropriate to himself and friends
the great wealth to be derived from the fur trade.
Under a plea that La Salle had forfeited his
charter by granting other parties permits to trade
with the Indians, sent an army officer, Captain
De Bongis, to Illinois with authority to take com-
mand of Fort St. Louis. Tonti being in com-
mand of the fort, surrendered it to the usnrper,
who also took possession of all the goods and furs
at the trading post. A few months after Captain
De Bougis assumed command, he became con-
vinced that he was holding the fort without au-
thority, consequently, he gave It up to Tonti and
returned to Canada.

On the followinij: year after De BouiJ:is had re-
liiKpiished his command of Fort St. Louis, a tall,


spare man, calling himself Captain Richard Pi-
lette, made his appearance at the garrison. This
man had been a captain in the army, but for some
canse was dismissed from service, and in order to
retriev^e his fortune came west. Pilette remained
at the fort a number of days without letting his
business be known, but when the proper time
came he drew from his pocket a commission, un-
der the governor's seal, authorizing him to take
command. Tonti denied th^ power of the gov-
ernor to appoint a commander, as the fort was
private property — having been built and main-
tained by La Salle at his own expense, in accord-
ance with a charter from the King of France. In
a pompous manner Pilette proclaimed himself
commander of Fort St. Louis by virtue of his
commission, and addressing the soldiers in a tone
of authority, ordered them to lay hold of Tonti
and place him under guard. Without making
any reply Tonti, with his iron hand, knocked
down the would be commander, and at the same
time relieving him of three of his front teeth.
Before the usurper could regain his feet, the
soldiers carried him outside of the gateway, set-
ting him on the rock, and gave him a start down-
wards. The rock being covered with sleet,
Pilette could not recover his footing or stop his
descent, but in that position slid to the bottom,


tearing his pantaloons into fragments, and bruising
himself on the sharp crags of rocks.

Captain Pilette, bruised and bleeding, his
clothing torn almost off him while sliding down
the rock, made his way to La Yantum, where he
found sympathy among his countrymen and their
Indian friends. While here he concocted a plan
to gain power of the Indians, and secure their
trade, in defiance of La Salle's charter and Fort
St. Louis. With eighteen Frenchmen and about
fifty warriors he went to Buffalo Rock, and on its
summit commenced building a fort. Here they
built a block-house, a store-house, and surrounded
them with earthworks and palisades. Pilette
promised the Indians to supply them with goods,
war implements, c%c., in exchange for furs, and
protect them from the Iroquois. Acting upon
this promise, a large number of Indians came
liere and built lodges within the stockades, as well
as around it, and in a short time it became a large
town. The place took the name of Le Fort des
Mianiis, and was occupied by the Indians long
after the French left the country. The remains
of this fort were plain to be seen in the early
settlement of the country, and were mistaken for
the relics of Fort St. Louis.

Next year after the fort was built. Captain Pi-
lette collected from the Indians two canoe loads


of pelts and furs, which he contemplated shipping
to Canada, and paying for them in goods on his
return. The captain, with three companions, was
about to start on this journey, when both French
and Indians were collected on the river bank
to bid them adieu. But as their canoes were
about to leave the shore, Tonti, with a file of
ai-med soldiers, made his appearance and forbid
them going until the duty authorized by La
Salle's charter was paid. Pilette protested
against being robbed in this way, as he termed it,
but knowing that Tonti with his armed soldiers
would enforce his demand, consented to pay the
tribute. Accordingly the recjuired num])er of
buffalo, beaver and otter skins was counted out,
after which the canoes departed on their way

Pilette married a squaw, raised a large family
of half-breed children, to whom he left a large
fortune, which he had made in the fur trade.
When he died they buried him on Buffalo Rock,
and raised a mound over his remains. A short
distance from the site of the old fort and town,
are a number of small artificial mounds, raised
over the remains of distiguished persons. For
years these mounds have been plowed over by
A. Betger, the owner of the land, but still their
outlines are plain to be seen. The largest one of
the group, and standing some distance from the



Others, is, in all probability, the one raised over
the tomb of Captain Pilette.

After Pilette's death, his family removed to
Peoria Lake, and one of his grandsons, Louis
Pilette was a claimant for the land on which
Peoria is built. Many of the descendants of this
old fur trader are now living on the American
Bottom, all of whom show strong marks of In-
dian origin. One of these descendants, Hypolite
Pilette, a great grandson of the Captain, has in
his possession a number of articles which once
i)elonged to his distinguished grandsire. From
this man I obtained most of the traditionary
account of Le Fort des Miamis, as well as many
other facts relating to the French and Indians of
that day.


The Illinois Indians like many of the western
tribes, were divided into clans, 'which were desig
nated by names of animals, such as wolf, Ijcar
buffalo, deer, tfec. In the marriage -relation these
clans were observed and their conditions strictly
complied with. A warrior was not allowed to
take a wife of his own clan, but could make his
selection from a different one. Thus wolf could
nut nuirry wolf, but could marry bear, biilhilo or



The cliieftainship was hereditary, bat not
always in a direct line. Thus, a son of a chief
may not inherit his title and authority ; although
a reputed heir he may not be a natural one, but
the son of the chief's daughter is always preferred,
as most likely to be of royal blood.

The Indians believed that sickness w^as caused
by a demon or evil spirit taking possession of the
patient, and the physician, who being a sorcerer,
would expel it by charms or incantations. This
he would do by songs, beating his drum, yelling
at the top of his voice, and sometimes hissing
like a serpent. If the case was a bad one, and
the demon could not be expelled by mild meaiis,
more powerful ones were resorted to. In stub-
born cases the physician would beat, choke and
pinch his patients, sometimes biting them until
the blood would flow ; whoop and yell over him,
and rattle tortoise shells in his ears. But if all
this failed to drive out the evil spirit, a council of
the patient's friends is called, a fire built, and the
sick person burned upon it, so the demon might
not escape and get into some one else.

Some of the dead were buried in the ground,
while others were wrapped in bufialo robes and
placed on scaffolds, out of the reach of wolves.
Here the body remained until the flesh decayed,
then the bones were taken down and laid away in


a grave. Sometimes the remains of persons killed
in a battle or by accident, were boiled, the flesh
taken off and the bones laid away in one corner
of the lodge until the time came for a public
burial. It was the custom to bury the chiefs in
some favorite spot, and raise a mound over them
to perpetuate their memory, and on the fifth day
of the tenth moon of each year, the warriors with
their faces blacked, would meet at the grave and
moan over the departed.

On the prairie near the old town of Utica, some
of these mounds are still to be seen, and they
have been noticed near the site of other Indian
villages of the west.

Infants after death were wrapped in a deer
skin, placed in a trougli covered with bark and
hung to the limb of a tree, where they were left to
be swung back and forth by the wind. For
many days after the death of an infant, the 1)0-
reaved mother would go at sunset and seat herself
at the root of the tree, and tor hours at a time,
sing to the sleeping babe, sweet lullal^y.


The Illinois Indians believed in a great si>irit
called Manito, ihat lived in the skies and i^overned
lieaven and earth. Besides this great spirit, tliore
were many smaller ones, that resided in I'ocks ur


caves of the earth, and would a])pear in the form
of a fairy or a big white bird ; sometimes as a
rabbit or fawn. Great efforts were made bv both
old and youn^ to keep on good terms wdth these
good spirits, as they protected them from the
evil ones.

Younff warriors at the ai>:e of fifteen would
paint their faces, cover their heads with an elk or
coon skin, and retire to a lonely place where they
would remain two days and nights, fasting and
praying for the manifestations of their Manito,
which was sure to appear to them in a dream.
Sometimes this spirit would appear to them in
tlie form of a bird, a ral)bit, antelope, or buffalo,
and follow them through life, acting as a guardian
angel, protecting them from the powers of the
evil one. In whatever form the good spirit man-
ifested itself, must be represented by a corres-
ponding idol, which is carried with them at all
times. When starting on the war-path, each
warrior puts his protector, called Totein^ w^iich is
generally a skin of a snake, a tail of a buffalo, a
horn of a deer, claw of a coon, or the head of an
eagle, into a medicine bag. This medicine bag is
carried by a priest or medicine man, who leads
the way, and the warriors follow after him in
single file.

The Indians believed in many evil spirits, some


of large and otliers of small magnitude. Tlie.se
spirits or demons, called barses, were all the while
roaming through the earth in search of prej, at-
tacking and destroying all persons unprotected
by a good spirit. The smaller ones would fre-
quently appear in the form of a serpent, a turtle,
or a wolf, but the larger ones, whose size exceeds
that of a horse or buffalo, with a long tail and
cloven feet, and whose roar during a thunder
storm could be heard miles away, and would at-
tack and destroy all persons unprotected.

About two miles south of La Yantum, in the
:thick timber of the Big Yermillion, is a singidar
rocky chasm or canon, extending from the creek
about eighty rods back into the bluff, and now
known as Deer Park. At the upper end of this
canon is a waterfall, caused by a small stream
falling from the projecting rock. Under this
waterfall was once a large cavern, but long since
closed up by the settling of the rock, and at pres-
ent scarcely perceptible. According to Indian
tradition, in this rocky cavern once lived a great
demon in the form of a buffalo, with immense
horns that folded up on his back, and a tail of
great length which he would swing to and fro
over his body. This great demon or barse was
frequently seen by the Indians during the night,
while passing to and from his den, and for many


years no one would go into Vermillion timber to
hunt for fear of being devoured by him.

During the dead hours of the night, while the
wind blew^ and thunder roared, this demon could
be heard howling round the town. At one time
he produced frost in midsummer, which destroyed
all the corn, and at other times knocked it all
down with the force of his breath.

During the dead hours of night, this evil s])irit
would assume the form of a man, enter lodges
while all were alseep, and breathe poison into the
nostrils of the sleepers, causing many to sicken
and die. Sometimes he would steal unborn in-
fants from their mother's w^omb, and by him
young maidens were robbed of their virtue.


The Jesuits of North America, whose head-
quarters was in Quebec, made great efforts to
Christianize the Illinois Indians, and for that pur-
pose many missionaries were sent west, who car-
ried with them gold and silver emblems of their
rebVion. These missionaries abandoned all the
comforts of civilization, and spent their days in
wigwams wdth the wild sons of the forest, all for
the glory and honor of the Redeemer. But all
their labors availed nothing, as the Indians con-
tormed to the modes of Christian worship only


for the gifts they expected to receive. Many
made an open profession of Christianity, oVjserv^ed
its form, but in fact still retained their own prin-
ciples of religion. The Jesuits were zealous in
their work of proselyting, impressing on the
minds of the Indians, that without Christian bap-
tism they would be cast into a lake which burnetii
with fire and brimstone. But the Indians had
been taught from their infancy, that when over-
taken by death they would be conducted by a
good spirit to the happy hunting grounds, to join
their friends who had gone before them, and theii'
early convictions the pnest could not remove.

All those who were baptized the priest pro-
nounced saved from perdition, and their names
were enrolled in the great book of the church.
They counted the conversions by the number of
baptisms, when in fact it had but little to do with
it, as many were willing to be baptized every day
in the week for a pint of whisky or a pound of
V tol)acco.

The medals, crosses and crucifixes which the
Jesuits gave the warriors, pleased their fimcy, as
they were fond of adorning their person with
glittering trinkets. And with these representa-
tions of man's salvation suspended from their
necks, they would remain heathens still. In ad-
dition to decorating their persons with tokens of


Cliristianity, many of the warriors wore necklaces
nuule of dried fingers taken from an enemy, whom
they had slain in battle. The former represent-
ed their religion, and the latter their patriotism.
Manjuette appears to have been an exception
to all other Jesuits who labored for the conversion
of the Indians. While others failed, his efforts
were crowned with success, and he made many
converts wdierever he went. Long after his death
his memory was held sacred, and the places which
he visited hallowed by posterity.



For a period of fifteen years after the death of
La Salle, the trade with the Illinois Indians was
carried on by Tonti and La Frost, under special
charter from the king of France. La Frost spent
most of his time in Canada, while Tonti remained
at Fort St. Louis, shipping each year a large
quantity of furs, and receiving goods in exchange.
In the year 1702, the Governor of Canada, claim-
ing that these traders had forfeited their charter
by collecting furs at various points on Lake Mich-
igan, and by militar}^ force he took possession of
Fort St. Louis, confiscating to the government all
their stock in trade. By this act of injustice
Tonti was not only disgraced by the arbitrary
power of the governor, but was ruined in fortune.
Calling his friends together, he took leave of them,
saying that he was about to depart from the
country never to return. Both French and In-
dians collected around Tonti, beseeching him to


reiiiaiii with tliem, but lie had resolved to do
otherwise, and with tears in their eyes he bade
thenn adieu. Accompanied by two companions,
he boarded a canoe and started down the river in
search of new adventures.

On reaching the lower Mississippi, Tonti joined
D'Iberville, and assisted him in establishing a
colony in that country. For sixteen years he re-
mained south, part of the time entrusted with
important missions, but when the colony was
broken up by sickness and Spanish invasion, he
became an outcast and a wanderer. Broken
{.k)wn in health, and feeling that his end was nigh,
he employed tw^o Indians to take him to Fort St.
Louis, so he could once more look upon the scene
of his vigor and manhood, and leave his bones
among the people by whom he had long been
honored and obeved.

It w^as a warm afternoon in the early part of
August, 1718, when the occupants of Fort St.
Louis were lounging around the palisades, imder
the shade of evergreens, some sleeping and others
en£:aired in o^ames of dice and checkers, when
they discovered a canoe coming up the river
rowed bv two Indians. In the bottom of the
canoe lay a man on a buftalo robe, but as they
came nigh the fort he raised himself into a sitting
position, and gazed wildly around him. The


caiioe landed at tlie base of the rock, and the
Indians dragged it on shore to prevent its being
carried away by the current. After securing their
canoe thev commenced ascending Starved Rock,
when their strange appearance caused naany con-
jectures among the inmates of tlie fort. Between
the two Indians was a feeble old man, whom the
conductors held by each arm, and were slowly
assisting him up the locky pathway. On reach-
ino" the fort at the summit of the rock, the old
man was placed on a bunk, where he lay for some
time unable to speak, being exhausted by the
fatigue of the journey. After taking some stim-
ulants his energies revived, and he inquired of
those around him who commanded the fort. On
being told it was Captain La Mott, he gave a
heavy sigh, saying that La Mott was a usurper,
and he the rightful commander. The people
thought him crazy or his mind wandering, and
they bathed his head with cold water. When
sufficiently recovered from exhaustion, he told
them that he was Tonti, and come here to die.
The old man's statements, although at first dis-
credited by most of those present, created much
excitement among the soldiers, but when con-
vinced of its truthfulness, one after another came"
forward and embraced him.

Sixteen years had made a great change in the


appearance of Tonti, and he was scarcely recog-
nized by his most intimate friends. His tall
manly form was bent by disease, his piercing
black eyes were dimmed with age, and his raven
black hair was now white as snow.

News of Tonti's arrival at Fort St. Louis spread
thronghout the country, and the French, half-
breeds and Indians at the different villages came
to see him. But, alas, those who had known him
while in the vigor of manhood, could scarcely
be convinced that the feeble old man. that they
now beheld was once the proud, brave and fear-
less Tonti of former years.

A few days after Tonti arrived at the tort he
took the sacrament at the hands of a priest, and
while lo(^king upon a gold crucifix which was
held before his face, he breathed his last. A grave
was dug on the river bank, close to the west end
of Starved Rock, m which his remains found a
long resting place.

For many years after Tonti's death, both French
and Indians while passing up and down the river
would stop to visit his grave, and sometimes place
u]jon it flowers or mementoes in memory of him
who sleeps beneath.



So long as the fur trade was conducted by Tonti


and La Frost, tlie Indians were well pleased with
their manner of doing business, bnt when it came
under the snpervision of the Governor of Canada,
a new order of things was introduced, which
caused ninch dissatisfaction. The governor ap-
pointed unscrupulons agents to conduct the trade,
who swindled the Indians by selling them worth-
less articles, such as counterfeit jewelry, knives,
tomahawks, &c., made of pot-metal. These
traders paid the government a certain duty on all
pelts shipped to Canada, and no one was allowed
to trade with the Indians unless authorized to do
so by the governor. The duty consisted of a
certain number of skins out of each cargo, which
the traders compelled the Indians to furnish,
otherwise their value was deducted on making
payment. The Indians being imposed upon by
these swindlers, an unfriendly feeling sprung up
up between them.

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Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 6 of 14)