N. (Nehemiah) Matson.

French and Indians of Illinois river online

. (page 7 of 14)
Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 7 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

There were other causes of ill feeling between
the French and Indians, among which was the
marriage relation. A Frenchman having married
a young squaw would put her away as soon as he
found another one more attractive, thus changing
his wife at will according to his fancy. Although
the priests would not tolerate bigamy among their
countrymen, yet they were willing to accept a
marriage fee once a month, twice a week, or as


often as the applicant desired a new wife. The
young squaws were fond of beads, rings and other
trinkets, with which they would adorn their per-
sons, and the one giving them the most presents
they were w^illing to marry. It was the hight of
their ambition to marry a white man, notwith-
standing they were liable to be put away at any
time, if their lord found one more attractive than

Under the Indian code of morals, a squaw, if
found unchaste, was punished by cutting off one
ear or branded on the forehead, but there was no
law to prevent them marrying every day in the
week, or as often as an opportunity occurred.

Captain La Mott was now in command of the
fort, and being a man fond of pleasure, and de-
void of conscientious scruples, converted it into
a regular harem, in open violation of both the
French and Indian code of morals. Young In-
dian maidens were in the habit of spending their
nights at the fort, under the pretext of being mar-
ried to soldiers, returning home in the morning
w^ith their heads'adorned with worthless trinkets,
and their minds poisoned by vile associations.
The squaws became so facinated with the French
that many refused to marry among their own peo-
ple, and had come to the conclusion that their
children were not worth raising, unless they had


French blood in their veins. Tilings iiad come
to such a state in their social relations, that the
head chief, Jero, called a council of chiefs and
warriors, and at which it was agreed to expel the
French from among them.

On a warm morning in the latter part of the
summer of 1718, while most of the occupants of
Fort St. Louis, after a night of revelry and de-
bauchery, were still asleep in their bunks, when
suddenly aroused by the presence of the
avengers. Captain La Mott, awakening from
his morning nap, was astonished on being con-
fronted by about three hundred warriors, armed
and painted as for war. The Captain inquired
the object of their visit, when Jero, the head chief,
informed him that they were here to destroy the
fort. The chief ordered the warriors to fire tlie
buildings, and in a few moments tlie block-house,
store-house and dwellings were in flames, all of
which were burned to the ground. Thus Fort
St. Louis was destroyed, after standing thirty-six
years, and being the head-center of the Frencli
settlement in Illinois.

On the destruction of the fort the colony was
broken up ; some of the traders returned to Can-
ada, others to the French settlement at Cahokia,
but the greater portion to Peoria Lake, where a
colony had been established seven years before.


Three years after the burning of Fort St. Louis,
Charlevoix visited Illinois, and found the palis-
ades still standino-. No Frenchmen lived here
at that time, but in the great town near by were
seen scores of half-breed children.

Some years ago Gen. Cass brought from France
a manuscript, dated 1726, and relates to western
Indians. It speaks of a war existing between
the lUinoians and Sacs, and Foxes, of Green Bay.
It also refers to M. De Siette, commander in
Illinois, and of the propriety of calling a council
at Chicago, or at the Rock, undoubtedly meaning
Starved Rock.


In the summer of 1805, a party at Kaskaskia,
learning from tradition that a large amount of gold
had been buried within the stockades of Fort St.
Louis, went in search of it. At that time the
location of Fort St. Louis was unknown. His-
tory and tradition alike failed to point it out;
but they knew it was on a rock washed by the
rapid current of the Illinois, and a short distance
above the great bend in the river. On Buffalo
Rock they found as they supposed relics of the
fort, and here they spent a number of days in
searching for the hidden treasure. But finding



nothing, they returned home and published an
account of their expedition in the newspapers of
that day. In this account they describe the re-
mains of the fort on a large rock, located on the
north side of the river, and from that time for-
wai'd it was conceded that Fort St. Louis was
built on Buffalo Rock.

It has already been shown that Butfalo Rock did
not answer the description of the place spoken of in
history, but the natural advantages between these
two rocks for a fortification, could not escape the
observation of a man with La Salle's shrewdness.
Buffalo Rock contains on its summit several
hundred acres of land, is only about sixty feet
high, and accessible at various points, con6e(iuent-
ly it would require a large force to hold a fort
thus located. Whereas, Starved Rock is one
hundred and thirty-six feet high, contains on its
summit less than one acre, can only be reached at
one point, which niakes it a natural fortress, where
but little labor would be required to make it
inqjregnable, so that a few soldiers could hold it
against all the savages of the west.

Immediately south of Starved Rock, and about
one hundred and fifty yards distant, is a high cliff
of rocks, isolated from the neighboring cliffs, and
known as Devil's Nose. Eastwai'd, across a chasm
two hundred and tifty yards in width, and covered


with a thick growth of timber, is another rocky
cliff of equal hight. This clifi rises almost per-
pendicularly from the water's edge, connecting
with the main bluff, and from an old Indian
legend is called Maiden's Leap. These two cliffs
are almost as high as Starved Rock, and if occu-
pied by the assailants would be within gunshot
of the fort. Therefore, it became necessary to
protect the sides next to them with earthworks
and palisades. The earthworks on the sides next
to these cliffs, enclosing almost two-thirds of the
circumference of the rock, are still to be seen,
leaving that next to the river w^ithout any protec-
tion whatever, as none were here needed. These
works commence at the western angle, following
the margin of the rock (which is of a circular
form) to the extreme east, leaving an open gate-
way on the south, where the path ascends the
rock, and is one hundred and twenty-two yards
in lenoth. On the south side of the rock and all
akmg the earthworks, which are now covered
with small trees and stunted evergreens, are many
pit-holes, two of which are very large. It is
quite probable that one of these was the maga-
zine of the garrison, and the other a csllar of
the store-house. The smaller pit-holes, which
are seen Here and there among the bushes,
according to tradition, were dug forty-seven years


after Fort St. Louis was destroyed, and under tlie
following circumstances :

When the Governor of Canada took possession
of Fort St. Louis, all the goods and furs belonging
to the traders were confiscated to the government
and report says divided between the governor and
his friends. Tonti, having at the time, in his
possession a large amount of gold, dug a hole
within the stockades and buried it to prevent its
falling into the hands of the governor. Sixteen
yeans afterwards, as Tonti was about breathing
his last, he told a priest who was holding a gold
crucifix Ijefore his face, about the gold being
buried within the toit. The priest kept the matter
a secret, waiting for an opportunity to resurrect
the gold, but soon after he was drowned in the
river by the upsetting of a canoe. The fort was
also burned and the French driven away, as pre-
viously stated.

In the summer of 1785, forty-seven years after
Fort St. Louis was abandoned, a party of French
at Peoria, among whom were Captain De Fond
and Father Buche, ])elie\ ing the story about gold
])eing l)uried in the fort, came u[) the river in
search of it. They encamped at the base of
Starved Rock, and spent many days in digging
on its summit. No gold was found, but in a vault
near where the store-house had stoc^l, they found


a laro^e number of articles desi2:ned for the Indian
trade, consisting of tomahawks, knives, beads,
guns and other articles. Tlie digging for gold on
Starved Rock accounts for the many pit-holes
now to be seen.

This account of searching for gold is given in
Father Buche's manuscript, now in possession of
Hypolite Pilette, and from which many extracts
are taken. Said he, "We had spent live days in
digging pit-holes on the summit of Le Rocher,
and found a large quantity of articles which
were intended for the Indian trade, but the
precious metal — the object of our search — we
found none. On the last day of our stay we dug
a hole close to the old earthwork, and continued
working until it was quite dark, when tl^ie devil
appeared to us in the form of a huge bear. On
seeing this monster we dropped our tools and
hurried down from the rock, put our camp kit in
the canoe and started down the river."

This story of gold being buried within the
stockades of Fort St. Louis, is also among the
Indian traditions, and some years ago a party of
Pottawatomies from Western Kansas came here
to search for it. People told them that Fort St.
Louis was built on Buffalo Rock, and on it they
dug a number of pit-holes, but finding nothing
they returned to their homes.



At what time tlie French commenced a settle-
ment at Peoria,has long been a controverted point
on which history and tradition are alike defective.
Some believe it commenced when La Salle built
Fort Creve Ceour, in the year 1680, and from
that time people continued to reside here. Others
fix the permanent settlement of the place about
the year 1760; but from an old letter in the pos-
session of a descendant of an early pioneer, as
well as traditionary accounts, it is quite evident
that it commenced at an early period. I have
given this subject much attention by gathering
up scraps of history relating to it, and by con-
versing with many of the descendants of the
Peoria French, some of whom trace their genea-
logy back to the days of La Salle. By comparing
these different accounts it is sliown conclusively
that the settlement at Peoria commenced in tlie


year 1711, and under the following circumstances:
In the summer of 1711, Father Marest, a Jesuit
priest from Canada, preached to the Indians at
Cahokia, and by the force of his eloquence a large
number of them were conv^erted to Christianity.
Among these converts was a chief nanjed Kolet,
from Peoria, wdio at the time was at Cahokia,
visiting friends. The chief prevailed on Father
Marest to accompany him home to his village at
Peoria Lake, and proclaim salvation to his people.
Late in November the priest and chief, accompa-
nied bv two warriors, started in a bark canoe for'
Peoria, but after going ten leagues the river froze
up, so that further progress bv water was out of
the question ; therefore the travelers hid their
canoe, with most of their baggage, in the thick
river timber, and continued their journey on foot.
For twelve days they waded through snow and
water, crossing big prairies and through thick
timber, full of briars and thorns. Sometimes
crossing marshes and streams where the ice would
give way, letting them into water up to their
necks. At night they slept on dry grass or leaves,
gathered from under the snow, without shelter or
anything but their blankets to protect them from
the cold winter blast. The provisions for their
journey, as w^ell as their bedding, was left with
their canoe, consequently they were obliged to


subsist on wild grapes and game killed by the
way. After many days of fatigue and exposure,
their limbs frost bitten, and their bodies reduced
in flesh from starvation, they at last reached
the village, and from the natives received a hearty

This Indian village (afterwards called Opa by
the French) was situated on the west bank of
Peoria Lake, one mile and a half above its outlet.
On La Salle's first visit to this place, thirty-one
years before, he found here a large town, and was
cordially received by the head chief, Niconope.
This chief -had long since been gathered to his
fathers, and his place was occcupied by Kolet,-
above referred to.

Father Marest found quarters in an Indian
lodge, and remained in the village . until spring
without meetino^ with one of his countrymen.
He preached to the Indians almost daily, many
of whom embraced Christianity, and their names
were afterwards enrolled in the church book.

On the following spring the French at Fort St.
Louis established a trading post at Peoria Lake,
and a number of families came thither from
Canada and built cabins in the Indian villao^e.
For fifty years the French and half-breeds con-
tinued to live in the town with the Indians, and
during that period peace and harmony prevailed


among them. But in course of time this town
was abandoned for one that figured extensively
in its day, and known in history as


In the summer of 1761, Robert Maillet, a
trader of Peoria, built a dwelling one mile and a
half below the town, near the outlet of the lake,
and moved his family thither. Here the land
rises gradually from the water's edge, until it
reaches the high prairie in the rear, forming a
beautiful sloping plateau, unequalled by any spot
on the Illinois river. This locality for a town
was considered preferable to the old one, the
ground being dryer, the water better, and it was
considered more healthy, consequently, others
came and built houses by the side of Maillet' s.
The inhabitants gradually deserted the old town
for the new one, and within a few years the latter
became a place of great importance. No French
lived in the old town after the year 1764, but for
many years it remained an Indian village, and
the houses vacated by the French, were occupied
by the natives until they rotted down.

The new town took the name of La Ville de
Maillet (that is Maillet's village), after its proprie-
tor, and was in existence fifty-one years. A fort


was built on high ground, overlooking the lake
on one side, and the sloping prairie on the
other. This fort consisted of two large block-
houses, surrounded by earthworks and palisades,
with an open gateway to the south next to the
town, and was only intended as a place of retreat
in case of trouble with the Indians. The fort was
never occupied except a short time by Robert
Maillet, who used one of the block-houses for a
dwelling, and the other for the sale of goods.
Some years afterwards, Maillei left the fort for a
more desirable place of residence and trade, and
it remained vacant for many years, the enclosure
within the stockades being used by the citizens
in common for a cow-vard.

In 1820 Hypolite Maillet, in testifying in the
United States Court, in a suit brought on French
claims, said that he was furty-five years old, and
was born in a stockade fort which stood near the
southern extremity of Peoria Lake.

In the winter of 1788, a large party of Indians
came to Peoria for the purpose of trade, and in
accordance with their former practice, took quar-
ters in the old fort. They purchased a cask of
brandy for the purpose of having a spree. All
got drunk, had a war dance, and dui'ing their
revelry set the block-houses on iire and l)urned
them down.


"When the Americans commenced a settlement
at Peoria, in the spring of 1819, the outlines of
the old French fort were plain to be seen on the
high ground, near the lake, and a short distance
above the present site of the Chicago and Rock
Island depot. The line of earthworks could be
traced out bj the small embankments, and in some
places pieces of pickets were found above ground.
Back of the fort was the remains of a blacksmith
shop, and near by grew a wild plum tree. This
plum tree was dug up by John Brisket, the owner
of the land, and under it was fouud a vault con-
taining a quanty of old metal, among which were
a number of gun-barrels, knives, tomahawks, cop-
per and brass trinkets, &c. Among other things
found in this vault, were pieces of silver and brass
plate for inlaying gun-stocks, ornamenting knife-
handles, &c. These things appeared to be the
stock in trade of a gunsmith, and for some cause
unknown were buried here.*

Accordino" to the statements of Antoine Des
Champs, Thomas Forsyth and others, who had
long been residents of Peoria previous to its de-
struction in 1812, we infer that the town con-
tained a large population. It formed a link
between the settlements of Kaskaskia, Cahokia
and Canada, and being situated in the midst of

* " Ballance's History of Peoria."


an Indian country, caused it to be a great place
of fnr trade. At one time it contained about
sixty houses, besides many lodges occupied by
Indians part of the year. The town was built
along the beach of the lake, and to each house
was attached an out-lot for a garden, which ex-
tended back some distance on the prairie. The
houses were all constructed of wood, some with
frame work and sided up with split timber, while
others were built with hewed logs, notched
together after the style of a pioneer's cabin.
The floors were laid with puncheons, and the
chimney built with mud and sticks.

General Clark conquered Illinois and took pos-
session of the settlements at Kaskaskia and Cahokia
in 1778, after Avhich he sent three soldiers with
two French Creoles, in a canoe to Peoria to no-
tify the people that they were no longer under
British rule, but citizens of the United States.
Among these soldiers was a man name<l Nicholas
Smith, afterwards a resident of Bourbon county,
Kentucky, and whose son, Joseph Smith, (Dad
Joe) was the among the first American settlers at
Peoria. Through this channel we have an
account of Peoria as it appeared almost a century
ago, and which agrees well with other tradi-
tionary accounts.

Mr. Smith said Peoria, at the time of his visit


was a large town, built along the beach of the
lake, with narrow, unpaged streets, and houses
constructed of wood. Back of the town were
gardens, stock-3-ards, barns, &c., and among these
was a wine press with a large cellar or under-
ground vault for storing wine. There was a
church with a large wooden cross rising above the
roof, and gilt lettering over the door. There was
an unoccupied fort on the bank of the lake, and
close by it was a wind-mill for grinding grain.
The town contained six stores or places of trade,
all of which were well filled with goods for the In-
dian market. The inhabitants consisted of French
half breeds and Indians, not one of whom could
speak or understand English.


The inhabitants of Peoria consisted of French
Creoles, emigrants from Canada, and half-breeds.
Many of them intermarried with the natives, so
that their posterity at the present time show strong
marks of Indian origin. They were a peaceable,
(piiet people, ignorant and superstitious, and in-
fluenced very much by the priests. They had no
public schools, and but few of them except priests
and traders, could read or write. Out of eighteen
claimants for the land where Peoria stands, all


but three signed their names with a mark.
Among the inhabitants were merchants or traders
who made annual trips to Canada in canoes, car-
rying thither pelts and furs, and loading back
with goods tor the Indian market. There were
mechanics among them, such as blacksmiths,
wagon-makers, carpenters, vfec; and most of the
implements used in farming and building were of
home manufacture. Although isolated from the
civilized world, and surrounded bj savages, tlieir
standard of moralitv was hio-h : theft, murder and
robbery was seldom heard of. They were a gay,
joyous people, having many social parties, wine
suppers and balls ; living in harmony witlj the
Indians, who were their neighbors and friends,
and in tradincr with them thev accumulated most
of their wealth.

The French settled at Peoria without a grant
or permission from any government, and the title
to their lands was derived from possession only.
But these titles were valid accordinoj to usao:es, as
well as a village ordinance, and lands were bought
and sold the same as it patented by government.
Each person had a right to claim any portion of
the unoccupied land, and when in possession his
title was regarded sacred. Every settler had a
village lot for a garden attached to his residence,
and if a farmer, a portion in the common Held.


On the prairie west of the town were extensive
farms, all enclosed in one field, each person con-
tributing his share of fencing, and the time of
securing the crops and pasturing the stock, was
regulated by a town ordinance. The boundaries
of these farms could be traced out in the early
settlement of Peoria, as the lands showed marks
of having been cultivated. When a young man
married, a village lot, and a tract of land in the
common field (if a farmer) was assigned to him,
and it was customary for the citizens to turn out
and build him a house.

- The inhabitants of Peoria had extensive vine-
yards, and each year made a large quantity of
wine, much of whicli thev traded to the Indians
in exchange for furs. .Tliey domesticated the
buffalo and crossed them with native cattle, which
was found to impi-ove the stock. These cattle
could live daring the winter without the expense
of feeding, but wdiile buffalo remained in the
country they lost many by straying off with the
herd. On the following summer, after the French
w^ere driven away from Peoria, a party of adven-
turers from St. Clair county came here and drove
a large number of these cattle home with them.
These cattle were highly prized by the inhabi-
tants, as thev would winter on the American
Bottoms without having to feed them. This


stock of cattle was known here for many years,
and at the present time some of their off-spring
show marks of buffalo origin, and their hides are
frequently tanned for robes.*

When a settlement was commenced at Peoria,
the country belonged to France, afterwards to
Great Britain, and lastly to the United Ststes.
When Illinois came under British rule in 1756,
Captain Stirling, commanding at Kaskaskia, sent
a messenger to Peoria to notify them that they
were British subjects. Afterwards, when Illinois
by conquest came under United States authority,
thej' were again notified of a change in govern-
ment, but they still remained French in feeling
and sympathy. They claimed no allegiance to
any government, paid no taxes, and acknowledged
no law except their own village ordinance. While
these people were living in peace and harmony,

•For one hundred years after the French made a settlement in
the west, no horses except Indian ponies were used by them,
and for the first thirty years cattle and hogs were unknown.
Tradition says two young pigs were brought in a canoe from
Canada to Fort St. Louis, and from these hogs were raised to
supply the setttlements on the Mississippi. At Cahokia the
settlers caught a number of bufialo calves, and raised thera
with the expectation of domesticating them, but it proved a
failure, for they went off with a herd of wild ones.

It Is said when Crozat obtained a patent for the Illinois coun-
try, In 1771, then called Louisiana, his agent. Colonel De Mott,
employed two half-breeds to drive a herd of cattle through the
wilderness from Cana to Kaskaskia, and from these origina-
ted the stock In the Mississippi vaUey.


bein^^ two hundred miles from the nearest point
of civilization, they were attacked by an armed
force, their town burned and the heads of fami-
lies carried off pi'isoners of war, as will be narrated
in a subsequent chapter. There are many inci-

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 7 of 14)