N. (Nehemiah) Matson.

French and Indians of Illinois river online

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The fortifications protecting the south part of
Starved Rock, had fallen into decay, fifty-one
years having elapsed since the French abandoned
F^rt St. Louis. The palisades had rotted off, and
the earth vrorks mouldered away to one-half their
original hight, consequently they afforded but little
protection. To remedy the defect on this side of
the old fortress, the besieged cut down some of
the stunted cedars that crowded the summit of
the rock, with which they erected barricades along
the embankment to shield themselves from the
arrows and rifle balls of the enemy.

The besieged were now^ protected from the
missiles of their assailants, but another enemy
equally dreaded — that of hunger and thirst— be-
gan to alarm them. "When they took refuge here
on the rock, they carried with them a quantity of *
provisions, but this supply was now exhausted
and starvation stared them in the face. At
first this rock was thought to be a haven of
safety, but now it w^as likely to be their tomb,
and without a murmur brave warriors made
preparations to meet their fate. Day after day
passed aw^ay, mornings and evenings came and
went, and still the Illinoians continued to be
closely guarded by the enemy, leaving them no
-opportunity to escape from their rocky prison.

Famishing with thirst caused them to cut up


some of their buckskin clothing, out of which
they made cords to draw water out of the river,
but the besiegers had placed a guard at the base
of the rock, and as soon as the vessel reached the
water they would cut the cord, or by giving it a
quick jerk the water drawer would be drawn over
the precipice, and his body fall lifeless into the

As days passed away, the besieged sat on the
rock, gazing on the great meadow below, over
which they had oftimes roamed at pleasure, and
they sighed for freedom once more. The site of
their town was in plain view, but instead of
lodges and camping tents, with people passing to
and fro, as in former days, it was now a lonely,
dismal waste, blackened by fire and covered with
the swollen and ghastly remains of the sJain.
Buzzards were hovering around, flying back and
forth over the desolated town, and feasting on tlie
dead bodies of their friends.

At night they "ooked upon the silent stars to-
ward the spirit land, and in their wild imagination
saw angels waiting :o receive them. While sleep-
ing they dreamed of roaming over woods and
prairie in pursuit of game, or cantering their
ponies across the plains, but on awakening it was
found all a delusion. Their sleep was disturbed
by the moans and sighs of the suffering, and


when morning came it was but the harbinger of
another day of torture. From their rocky prison
they could see the ripe corn in their lields, and
on the distant prairie a herd of buffalo were graz-
ing, but while in sight of plenty they were fam-
ishing for food. Below them, at the base of the
rock, flowed the river, and as its rippling waters
glided softly by, it appeared in mockery to their
burning thirst.

They had been twelve days on the rock, closely
guarded by the enemy, much of the time suffer-
ing from hunger and thirst. Their small stock
of provision was long since exhausted, and early
and late the little ones were heard crying for
food. The mother would hold her infant to her
breast, but alas the fountain that supported life
had dried up, and the little sufferer would turn
its head away with a feeble cry. Young maidens,
whose comely form, sparkling eyes and blooming
cheeks were the pride of their tribe, became
pale, feeble and emaciated, and with a feeling of
resignation they looked upward to their home in
the spirit land. One of the squaws, the wife of
a noted chief, while suffering in a fit of delirium
caused by hunger and thirst, threw her infant
from the summit of the rock into the river below,
and with a wild, piercing scream, followed it.

A few brave warriors attemped to escape from


their prison, but on descending from tlie rock
were slain by the vigilant guards. Others in
their wild frenzy hurled their tomahawks at the
fiends below, and singing their death song, laid
down to die.

The last lingering hope was now abandoned ;
hunger and thirst had done its dreadful work ;
the cries of the young and lamentations of the
aged were heard only in a whisper; their tongues
swollen and their lips crisped from thirst so they
could scarcely give utterance to their sufferings.
Old white headed chiefs, feeble and emaciated,
being reduced almost to skeletons, crept away
under the branches of evergreens and breathed
their last. Proud young warriors preferred to die
upon this strange rocky fortress by starvation and
thirst, rather than surrender themselves to the
scalping knives of a \actorious enemy. Many
had died ; their remains were lying here and
there on the rock, and the effluvium caused by
putrefaction greatly annoyed the besiegers. A
few of the more hardy warriors for a time feasted
on the dead, eating the flesh and drinking the
blood of their comrades as soon as life was extinct.

A party of the allied forces now ascended the
rock and tomahawked all those who had survived
the famine. They scalped old and young, and
left the remains to decay on the rorJv, where


tlieir ])ones were seen many years afterward.
Thus perished the large tribe of Illinois Indians,
and with the exception of a solitary warrior, they
became extinct.


Near the close of the siege of starved Rock, a
young warrior, during a severe storm and dark-
ness of the night, took a buckskin cord which
had been used for drawing water, and fastening
it to the trunk of a tree let himself down into the
river. Escaping detection by the guards, he
swam down the river and thus secured his liberty,
being the only survivor of this fearful tragedy.
This warrior was partly white, being a descend-
ant on his father's side from the French, who set-
tled around Fort St. Louis many years before.
Beinff alone in the world, without kindred or
friends, he went to Peoria, joined the colony, and
there ended his days. He embraced Christianity,
became an officer in the church, and was chris-
tened under an old French name. La Bell. His
descendants are now living near Prairie du Rocher,
one of whom, Charles La Bell, was a party to a
suit in the United States Court to recover the
land where the city of Peoria now stands *

*In the early settlement of the country there was an old In-
dian named Meachelle, who frequently visited the trading posts
at Hennepin and Ottawa, and made various statements about
the Starved Rock tragedy. He said he was a boy at the time,
accompanying his father; was present and saw the destruction



A few days after the destruction of the Illinois
Indians, a party of traders from Peoria, among
whom were Robert Maillet and Felix La Pance,
while on their return from Canada with three
canoes loaded with goods, stopped at the scene of
the late tragedy. As they approached Starved
Rock, which at that time was called Le Rocher,
they noticed a cloud of buzzards hovering over
it, and at the same time they were greeted with a
sickening odor. On landing from their canoes
and ascending the rock, they found the steep,
rocky pathway leading thereto stained with blood,

of the last ol the Illinois Indians. After many days siege, said
he, a large number of warriors descended from the rock and
made an attempt to fight their way through the lines, but were
all slain except seven, who succeeded in escaping down the
river to Peoria, and found refuge among the French.

As late as the year 1828, a small band of Indians lived on Lake
Dupue, and raised corn on a little bottom prairie, now included
in a farm owned by Charles Savage. Among these Indians was
a very old man, who frequently accompanied his grandson in a
canoe to Hartzell's trading house. This old man said that he
was born on the Wabash, and was ten years old at the time of
the Starved Rock tragedy. His father participated in thig
affair, and two of his uncles were killed in the fight with the
Illinoians before they took refuge on Starved Rock. He said
the fight continued for two days at tlie town, and hundreds of
warriors on both sides were slain, but during a rain storm and
darkness of the night, the remnant of the Illinoians escaped to
Starved Rock.

Two years after this affair, the band to which the old Indian
belonged emigrated to Illinois, and built a town on the south
side of the river, opposite Lake Dupue. At that time, and for


and among the stunted cedars that grew on the
cliff were lodged many humark bodies, partly de-
voured by birds of prey. But on reaching the
summit of Le Rocher, they were horrified to find
it covered with dead bodies, all in an advanced
state of decomposition. Here were aged chiefs,
with silvered locks, lying by the side of young
warriors, whose long raven black hair partly con-
cealed their ghastly and distorted features. Here,
too, were squaws and pappooses, the aged grand-
mother and the young maiden, with here and
there an infant, still clasped in its mother's arms.

many years afterwards, the summit of the rock was covered
with bones and skulls. Two miles below Starved Rock, on the
site of the town, where a great battle was fought, many acres
of ground were covered with human bones.

An old Indian called Shaddy, who went west with his band
in 183-i, but afterwards returned to look once more upon the
scene of his youth, and hunted on Bureau and along the Illinois
river in the winter of 1836. From this old Indian I gathered
many items in relation to past events. He said that his father
was at the siege of Starved Rock, and all the Illinois Indians
perished except one. This was a young half-breed, who let
himself down into the river by means of a buckskin cord, dur-
ing a severe rain storm, and in the darkness of the night made
his escape.

According to history, about one thousand Illinoians, but
known as Kaskaskia Indians, were living in the south part of
the State as late as 1802. The Indians at the south appear to
have taken no part in the war, and the destruction of the tribe
applied only to those along the Illinois river.

It is said some of the Illinois tribe took refuge with the French
at Peoria, and were afterwards known as Peoria Indians.

These conflicting statements are given only for what they are
worth, and from which the reader can draw his own conclusions.


Some liad died from tliirst and starvation, others
by the tomahawk or war-chib ; of the latter a
pool of clotted blood was seen at their side. All
the dead, without regard to age or sex, had been
scalped, and their remains, divested of clothing,
were lying here and there on the rock. These
swollen and distorted remains were hideous to
look upon, and the stench from them so offensive
that the traders hastened down from the rock
and continued on their way down the river.

On reaching La Yantum, a short distance below
Le Rocher, the traders met with a still greater
surprise, and for a time were almost ready to be-
lieve what they saw was all delusion instead of a
reality. The great town of the west had disap-
peared ; not a lodge, camping tent, nor one human
being could be seen ; all was desolate, silent and
lonely. The ground where the town had stood
was strewn with dead bodies, and a pack of hun-
gry wolves were feeding upon their hideous

Five months before, these traders, while on
their way to Canada, stopped at La Yantum for
a number of days in order to trade with the In-
dians. At that time the inhabitants of the town
— about five thousand in number — were in full
enjoyment of life, but now their dead bodies lay
mouldering on the ground, food for wolves and


buzzards. Maillet and La Pancc had bought of
these people two canoe loads of furs and pelts,
which were to be paid in goods on their return
from Canada. The goods were now here to make
payment, according to contract, but alas the cred-
itors had all gone to their long home.

The smell from hundreds of putrified and partly
consumed remains, was so oiFensive that the
traders remained only a short time, and with
sadness they turned away from this scene of hor-
ror. Again boarding their canoes they passed
down the river to Peoria, conveying thither to
their friends the sad tidings.


On the following spring, after the annihilation
ol the Illinoians Indians, a party of traders from
Cahokia, in canoes loaded with furs, visited Can-
ada, making thither their annual trip in accord-
ance with their former custom. On reaching
Peoria they heard of the destruction of the Illi-
nois Indians on Starved Rock, and were afraid to
proceed further on their journey, not knowing
but the victors were still in the country, and they,
too, would meet with a like fate. After remain-
ing a few days at Peoria, they proceeded on their
way, accompanied (as far as Starved Rock) by


twenty armed Frenchmen and about thirty In-
d ian. With this escort was Father Jacques Buche,
a Jesuit priest of Peoria, and some account of his
observations are presei v^ed in his mauscript*

When the voyageurs arrived atLaVantum, they
found the to^n site strew a with human bones.
These, w Ith a few charred poles, alone marked
the location of the former great town of the west.
Scattered over the prairie were hundreds of skulls.
Some of these retained a portion of flesh and were
partly covered with long black hair, giving to the
remains a ghastly and sickening appearance.

This party also ascended Le Rocher, and found
its summit covered with bones and skulls. Among
these were found knives, tomahawks, rings,
beads and various trinkets, some of wliich the
travelers carried with them to Canada, and now
can be seen among the antiquarian collection at

Yarious accounts are given, both by French
and Indians, of seeing in after years relics of this
tragical affair on the summit of Staived Rock.
Bulbona, a French Indian trader, who was known
by many of the early settlers, said when a
small boy he accompanied his fatlier in ascending
Starved Rock, and there saw many relics

•An account of this manuscript will be found in the succeed-
ing chapter, and from which many extracts are taken.


of this fearful tragedy. This was only fifteen
years after the massacre of the Illinois Indians,
and the rock was covered with skulls and bones,
all in a good state of preservation, but bleached
white by rain and sun.

On my first visit to Starved Kock, nearly forty
years ago, I found a number of human teeth and
small frao-ments of bones. Others have found
relics of the past, such as beads, rings, knives, &c.

About thirty-five years ago a human skull,
partly decayed, was found at the root of a cedar
tree, buried up with leaves and dirt. A rusty
tomahawk and a large scalping knife, with other
articles, also human bones, were taken out of a
pit hole, a few years ago. The early settlers
have found many things on the summit of Starved
Rock, and still retain them in tlieir possession as
relics of the past.



In the river timber, about one-half mile south-
east of Starved Rock, and on land belonging to
Mrs. Gabet, is still to be seen the remains of an
ancient fortification. This work of antiquity is
located on a level piece of ground, at the inter-
section of two ravines, and consists of low, irregu-
lar earthworks. These earthworks follow the
course of the ravines on two sides, forming zig-
zag lines, with an open gateway at the east, front-
ing the prairie. These lines enclose about one
acre of ground, of an oblong shape, and is now
covered with large trees. This old relic appears
to have been only a temporary fortification, con-
sisting of a ditch, an embankment, and perhaps
palisades. At what time this fortification was
erected, by whom and for what purpose, will
]irobably remain a mystery.

There are various opinions about _these old
earthworks. Some believe they were erected l)y


the French while in possession of Fort St. Louis,
and intended as a summer fort to protect them-
selves from the Indians while raising a crop on
the adjoining prairie. But this is not probable, as
the prairie near by, in the early settlement of the
country, showed no marks of ever having been
cultivated ; and protection from the Indians was
unnecessary, as they always lived on friendly
terms with them. It could not have been the
work of the French, for it shows no signs of civil
engineering, and neither history nor tradition
give any account of it.

A few years ago a large burr oak was cut within
the fortification, and near the heart of it was
found imbedded a rifle ball, which, according to
the growths, must have been put there more than
a century ago. There are a number of large
trees growing on the embankment and in the
ditch, on various parts of the fortification, which
is evidence of its great antiquity. This old relic
is, without doubt, a workof the Mound Builders,
as similar remains are found elsewhere.

About two hundred yards northeast of this old
fort, by the side of a small ravine, a coal bank
was recently opened by James Bain, but on ac-
count of the thinness of the vein it was found
unprofitable to work. This vein of coal is close
to the surface, only a few feet under ground, and


near the place where it was opened is a large
cavity in the earth. On examining this cavity
or excavation, it was found that the coal had
been taken out, and the enbankment on either
side, caused by throwing out the dirt, are now
covered with trees. This work must have been
done centuries ago, and some believe by the occu-
pants of the fort above described.


In the vicinity of Starved Rock many relics of
the early French explorers have been found, con-
sisting of farming implements of European man-
ufacture, rifle and cannon balls, gold and silver
crosses, two bronze medallion heads, one ol Louis
XIV, and the other Pope Leo X.

A few years ago a small cannon was found
near Ottawa, imbedded m the river bank, where,
in all probability, it had remained a century or
more. This cannon is constructed of wrought
iron, hooped with heavy rings to give it strength,
like those used in Europe three hundred years
ago. This ancient piece of ordnance, in all prob-
ability, was brought from Canada in a canoe Ijy
La Salle, or some of his men, to be used on a
fortification. It may have been the first one
mounted on the ramparts of Fort St. Louis, and


at the time of its dedication fired a salute in honor
of the king of France.

A short time ago an old cedar tree was cut on
the summit of Starved Eock, and within its trunk
was found imbedded a gun-barrel, partly destroyed
by rust. How this gun-barrel came here will for-
ever remain a mystery, but in all probability it
was the work of an ingenious Frenchman during
the occupation of Fort St. Louis. This gun-
barrel, with a portion of the tree which sur-
rounded it, are preserved among the collections
of relics in Ottawa.

A few months ago, David Walker found near
Buffalo Rock a piece of copper, about the size
and shape of a half dollar. This curious relic is
carved with rude characters, among which can be
traced the name of Tonti. It is quite probable
this is one of the medals which the commander
of Fort St. Louis distributed among his Indian
friends, of which w^e have an account.

While digging a cellar for a house, near the
base of Starved Rock, a short time ago, a human
skull was found, in which was a large sized tiint
arrow head. On one side of the forehead of this
skull is a hole where the missile of death had en-
tered. This skull, arrow head, Tonti's medal, an
iron Indian ax, on whicli is the name of Standish,
with a large collection of other Indian relics, are



now m the possession of David Walker of Ottawa.

Near Starved Rock, on both sides of the river,
many Indian relics have been found, consisting
of gun flints arrow^ heads, earthen pots and ket-
tles, with tomahawks, knives, hoes, &c., made of
stone. Many of these relics have been collected
by people living in that locality, and will be pre-
served in " The Ottawa Academy of Natural

On the north side of the river, a short distance
above Starved Rock, and on the bottom prairie,
are three sulphur springs. One of these springs
is very large, boiling up among the white sand,
and throwing out a large volume of clear
water strongly impregnated with saline matter.
In former times Indians from different parts
of the countr}^, atilicted with maladies, came liero
t<)r medical treatment, which to some extent ac-
counts for the great amount of relics found in this


This colony as has been previousl}^ stated, was
founded by La Salle, at Fort St. Louis, in the year

*Tn tlie year 18.".:; a large stone house, caUodtlie Sulphur Spring
Hotel, was built lieve with the expectation ot nuiking this a
great, watering place, but t lie enterprise ;was a failure. Not-
withstanding the extensive advertising by those interested,
liey did not succeed in making it a Saratoga nor a Iloniburg.


1682, under a charter from the king of France,
and was called Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV.
The colony existed here until 1718, a period of
tliirty-six years, hut had it continued permanently
La Salle countv would have been the oldest settled
place in the west. One year after this colony
was established, La. Salle gave Eichard Bosley
a permit to trade with the Indians at Cahokia,
wdiere Father Allonez had previously established
a mission. Emigrants from Canada came to Ca-
hokia, many of whom became permanent residents,
and from that time people continued to reside
liere, therefore it now^ claims to be the oldest
settlement in the Mississippi valley. The French
erected houses in the town w^ith the Indians, and
all lived together in harmony. Marriages l)e-
. tween the French and Indians were legalized by
the Catholic church, and many of the traders found
wives among the blooming daughters of Illinois.
Some of the present inhabitants of Cahokia can
trace their genealogy back to the time of La Salle,
their ancestors having intermarried with the na-
tives, so that in many families the Indian blood

A French settlement was soon after made at
Kaskaskia, and a few years later a colony was
planted on the lower Mississippi. The whole
country took the name of Louisiana, designating


the nortli and south part by Illinois and Missis-

The king of France gave Crozat a patent for
all the Louisiana country, over which he was to
have control tor twenty years, for the purpose of
mining and trading with the Indians. This patent
bears date September 14, 1711, and was ratified
by the colonists of Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Fort
St. Louis. Colonel La Mott, an agent of Crozat,
took possession of the country, assuming the title
of Governor, and made Kaskaskia the capital.
The Indians showed the new governor two pieces
ot silver ore, which they said were taken out of
Illinois mines, but in fact came from Mexico.
Thinking only of making a great fortune, the
governor employed a company of luiners, and
went north in search of the precious metal. Lead
and copper in great abundance were found, but
no silver nor gold. After prospecting for two
years, and expending large sums of money in
searching for the precious metal, without meeting
with success, the scheme was abandoned.

Crozat, after five years experience in mining
and trading with the Indians, found it unprofita-
ble, so he surrendered his patent to the French
Court, and Governor La Mott, with many of the
miners, returned to France.

On the year following the surrender of Crozat's


patent, a similar one was granted to George Law,
a Scotch banker of Paris, and by his orders Fort
Charters, on the Mississippi, was built.

In the spring of 1736 D. Arquette commander
in Illinois, and Captain Vincennes, of a trading-

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Online LibraryN. (Nehemiah) MatsonFrench and Indians of Illinois river → online text (page 9 of 14)