Illinois Indians

The state of Illinois (pronounced “ill-in-noy) is named after the Illinois Indians, or as they called themselves Illiniwek (pronounced “ih-lih-new-eck”) which means “the best people.”

Another European corruption of their real name is Illini (pronounced “ih-LIE-nee).

The Illinois were originally inhabitants of modern-day Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa. The Illinois country reached the Illinois-Wisconsin border to the north.

The French in fact named Lake Michigan as “Lac du Illinois” or Lake of the Illinois because of the proximity of the Illini. Their territory stretched eastward to the Wabash River basin and extended westward across the Mississippi River into eastern Iowa.

The Illini treated the Ohio River as their southern territorial boundary, although there is anecdotal evidence that on occasion, they hunted in what is now northwestern Kentucky, which was claimed by the Chickasaws.

The desirability of the Illinois country would in great measure prove to be the undoing of the Illiniwek. Its attractiveness was an irresistible magnet to the warlike tribes of Wisconsin and its richness in furs likewise attracted the unwanted attention of the Iroquois to the east.

For a time, the Michigamea (also “Mitchigamea”) subdivision established themselves on the St. Francis River in northeastern Arkansas. This placed them near the Quapaws whom they aided in their fight against the Chickasaws.

They later relocated to the vicinity of Fort De Chartres, located in what is now Randolph County, Illinois, in the early 1700s. Some suggest that the Michigamea were late-comers to the confederation; that the Illini “adopted” the tribe in late pre-historic times.

Others such as Hauser contend that the Michigamea were part of the original Illini root stock; that their journey across the Mississippi happened for the same reasons that caused the other sub-tribes to often leave the Illinois River valley.

They fought with many tribes, including the Iroquois, Sioux, and Winnebago.

Such reasons might have been better hunting to the west, traditional migratory patterns, and pressure from the Iroquois to the east and the Sioux to the north.

With that possible exception, the Illiniwek range, then, can be said to include all of the present state of Illinois and the lands immediately adjacent to that state. However, during their hunting and wars, the Illini traveled far beyond this region.

The Illinois traded with all the other tribes of the Great Lakes region, and sometimes with tribes who lived further away. Unlike their relatives the Miami Indians, they didn’t have good relations with most of their neighbors. 

In 1769, an Illinois Indian man who was working for the British assassinated the Ottawa leader Chief Pontiac.

The angry Ottawas and all their allies attacked the Illiniwek and completely defeated them. After that, many Illinois Indian people banded together with the Miami tribes. The Peoria tribe today is still closely allied with the Miamis.

Illinois Confederation

The Illiniwek Confederation was not a confederation in the true sense of the word, according to Hauser. The term “confederation” usually refers to a linkage of groups which are culturally different and distinct for common purposes. The Illini Confederation does not pass the test.

First, the constituent tribes spoke the same Algonquin language. Second, the sub-tribes were culturally similar, if not in fact identical. Third, these Illinois sub-tribes were certainly closely associated. During the summer, the various tribes often lived in the same villages on the Illinois River.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote that, “A tribe as a whole is normally not a political organization, but rather a social-cultural-ethnic entity. It is held together principally by likenesses among its segments, (mechanical solidarity), and by pan-tribal institutions.”

The Illini were a segmented tribe rather than a confederation in the true sense of the term. There is the matter of the Grand Chief who had status recognized by all of the Illinois tribes. This indicates that the Illini were more likely a large and segmented tribe rather than a confederation.

The Illinois Confederacy of tribes appears to have had common historical roots, clan and kinship ties, and cultural commonality. Even after the split, there was a single Grand Chief of the Illinois as well as numerous sub-chiefs among the sub-tribes.

Each Illini village had its own chief or sub-chief and was independent of the others, but all the Illini chiefs made joint decisions in long councils.

The five most populous tribes of the Illinois Confederation were the Kaskaskia, the Cahokia, the Peoria, the Tamaroa, and the Michigamea. Other smaller affilliated groups were the Taporouas, the Moingwenas, the Chinkoa, the Omouahoa, the Coiraconetanon, and the Chepoussa.

While some authors consider the Wea (Ouiatenon) and Piankeshaw to be Illinois affilliates, in fact these two well-known tribes are members of the Miami family.

Illinois Culture

They lived in villages of large rectangular houses with walls made of woven reeds.

The Illini grew corn, beans, and squash. The women did most of the farming,harvesting, and camp duties, while Illiniwek men hunted deer, wild turkeys, and small game.

Sometimes they would also have large communal buffalo hunts. Several Illini villages would get together and use a ring of fire to herd buffalo towards a group of hunters.

Fish were also plentiful in the Illinois River and its tributaries when necessity demanded their harvest, but game animals were preferred over fish.

Illiniwek women wore skirts with leggings, and men wore breechclouts. The Illini people wore shirts in cool weather, but even in wintertime, Illini men didn’t wear long pants. Illinois Indians also wore moccasins on their feet.

They didn’t wear war bonnets like the Sioux. Sometimes they wore a beaded headband with a few colored feathers in it.

Illini women usually wore their hair in long braids. Illini men often shaved their heads in the Mohawk style and wore a porcupine roach.

The Illiniwek practiced polygamy. Wives suspected of unfaithfulness were severely punished, sometimes suffering the loss of an ear or nose.

The French were astonished to find among the Illini a few men who dressed and acted out the social role of women. These the Illini called Ikoneta, but the French called them berdache.

Small boys who showed marked tendencies toward femininity were raised as girls. This included use of tatooing and language patterns that were traditionally female.

Many confirmed their status as Ikoneta in their dream fasts. They are thought to have been bi-sexual.

The Illinois men also practiced the ritual of dream-seeking. At the age of fifteen or so, the young men painted their faces and removed themselves to a secluded location to fast and pray. They hoped for a vision that would reveal a spirit guardian to them who would be their helper throughout life.

Illinois Language

Illinois Indian people speak English today. In the past, the Illiniwek spoke their native Miami-Illinois language. It has this long name because two tribes, the Miami and Illinois tribes, spoke the same language with different accents–just like Americans and Australians both speak English but the pronunciation is slightly different.

Early French commentators believed that the Illini and Miami came from a common ancestral tribe that split in the late prehistoric period. They were living as distinct, separate tribes when the French first encountered them in the 1600s.

The Illinois Indian language is not spoken anymore. However, the Miami and Peoria tribes are working together to teach their children the language again.

Illinois Transportation

The Illinois made dugout canoes called pirogues, which were boats made by hollowing out logs with adzes and fire. Some were up to fifty feet long.
Before they had horses, the Illini used dogs as pack animals. The dogs carried backpacks or pulled wooden drag sleds called travois.

Illini Tools and Weapons

They used bows and arrows, spears, and clubs. Illini men would also use shields of buffalo hide to deflect enemy arrows.

Illinois History

The Illinois Confederacy was surrounded by powerful enemies. According to the Jesuit Father Allouez, “…they waged war with seven or eight different nations.”

To the north there were the Fox, the Winnebago, and the Sioux. To the west, there were the Osage and Missouri. To the south there were the Chickasaw. But to the east lay the most serious threat to the Illini, which was the Iroquois Confederacy.

In or about 1634, the Illinois fought a major battle with the Winnebago. The Illini had sent a relief expedition to aid the Winnebago who had fallen upon hard times, but as matters turned out, the Winnebagos were not grateful.

Surrounded by war-like Algonquin tribes such as the Fox (Meskwaki), Mascoutens (Fire Nation), Hurons and others, their numbers were greatly reduced.

A particularly severe defeat at the hands of the Fox greatly weakened the Winnebago. Then came a crippling epidemic (possibly flux) and starvation followed.

Upon learning of the plight of their northern neighbors, the Illinois sent 500 men loaded with food northward to assist the Winnebagos.

The Winnebagos welcomed the Illinois, but during dancing in honor of the Illiniwek, the Winnebagos surprised their guests and killed them. They then made a feast of their rescuers.

Upon learning of this treachery, the Illini dispatched a large war party to avenge their dead. Knowing that the Illinois did not use easily portable bark-skinned canoes, the Winnebago retreated to an island.

Since winter was near, the patient Illiniwek waited until the weather grew colder and the lake froze. They stormed across the ice, fell upon the Winnebago, and killed all but 150 or so who were made slaves.

In time, the Illini released their prisoners who are the forefathers of the surviving Winnebagos.

Although the Illini had decimated the Winnebago, they had also suffered casualties. Taken with the 500 men lost to treachery, the Illinois were in a much weakened state at the worst possible time. The Iroquois had turned their faces toward the Illinois Country.

After the Iroquois depleted the beaver population in their own country, they looked beyond their traditional range for pelts. This led to what has been called the Beaver Wars.

The need to find new sources of beaver pelts and the Iroquois’ desire to be middlemen to the French sent Iroquois warriors off to the west and northwest.

In 1635 the Iroquoians, still a number of ununited tribes, lived in permanent palisaded villages. This was for protection against the fierce Algonquins who constantly raided and made war upon them. The Iroquois then took two steps that would change American history.

They began to train their young men for war in a Spartan manner, and they formed their League of Five Nations.

As the western-most tribe of the Iroquois, the Seneca would become bitter enemies of the Illini.

When Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would later bear his surname, he had no idea that his voyage would bring bloodshed and suffering to the Illini people almost a thousand miles distant, but such was the case.

The Dutch established their colony on the banks of the Hudson and began to supply the Iroquois with trade goods. These included steel knives and tomahawks as well as guns, powder, and ammunition.

Armed with modern European weapons, the Iroquois were an irresistible force, while the Illinois were still fighting with stone aged weapons such as flint-tipped arrows, lances and war clubs.

In 1653, after defeating the Nipissings and Hurons, the Iroquois moved against the Ottawa. For two years, the Iroquois fought the Ottawa but could not defeat these rugged warriors of the western Great Lakes. The Iroquois then divided their force into two parties.

The smaller went against the Chippewa and their allies while the larger went south into “buffalo country” which is to say the central Illinois prairies.
The Iroquois attacked a small Illinois village and killed the women and children.

The men gathered together the Illinois warriors who were hunting in the vicinity and “utterly defeated” the invaders. The first battle of the war was won by the Illini.

Unfortunately for the Illini, it would not be the last.
Although their initial attempts in the west met with failure, the Iroquois pressed their attack.

Soon the whole shoreline of Lake Superior was filled with Algonquin nations that had fled from the Iroquois war machine. Nor had the Iroquois forgotten the Illini.

In September, 1680, a force of 500 Iroquois and 100 of their allies (Voeglin and Jones says the allies were Shawnee while Schlarman contends the Iroquois allies were Miami) attacked the great Illinois village at Kaskaskia on the Illinois River, near present-day Peoria. The timing of the attack could not have been worse for the Illinois.

Many of the warriors, led by Chief Chassagoac, were far to the south at Cahokia for a religious festival. Tonti who lived among the Illini had begged Chassagoac not to go, fearing an attack, but only about 500 Illiniwek warriors remained, and they had only about 100 guns among them, with only 400 rounds of ammunition. Most were armed with bows & arrows and tomahawks.

The Illiniwek evacuated old men, women, and children down the Illinois River six miles to an island where they could hide until the battle was over. The Illini went out to meet the attackers.

When the Iroquois advanced across the plain between the Illinois River and The Vermillion River, the Illinois ambushed them. The Iroquois fell back, but soon returned to the attack.

Tonti approached the Iroquois with a wampum belt, hoping to negotiate a peace treaty. He was stabbed by an Iroquois warrior but not fatally. The Iroquois forced Tonti to evacuate up the Illinois to Lac du Illinois. Then the attack recommenced.

After about eight days of fighting, the Illinois were driven back to their village, where they were overcome by the Iroquois after fierce fighting. The surviviors fled down the Illinois River to the Mississippi while the Iroquois tortured and burned their captives.

The scaffolds of the dead were pulled down and the corpses mutilated. Then the Iroquois pursued the Illinois down the river, where they discovered the women and children hidden on the island.

When La Salle returned in December, he found the burned bodies of the Illini women still bound to stakes while the bodies of the children lay nearby. As late as 1829, many human bones could still be found on the island.

When the fleeing Illinois reached the mouth of the Mississippi, the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Chinkoa went north up the river. The Omouahoa, Coiracoentanon, Moingwena, and Chepoussa went down the river. The Peoria crossed the Mississippi to the other side.

Only the Tamaroa Tapouaro, and Ispeminkia remained to hunt at the mouth of the Illinois. They were again attacked by the Iroquois and suffered about 700 killed or captured.

The Illini had returned to the site of Kaskaskia following the massacre. Soon the town had several thousand residents. One day a scout rode in with the news that the Iroquois were returning.

The Illini, the memory of the recent massacre at this very site fresh in their minds, turned to the French led by Henri de Tonti at Fort St. Louis for protection. He told them that the fort was too small to house everyone and that the Illini should fortify their village and fight.

Instead the Illini retreated down the Illinois River rather than face a second massacre. The first had greatly reduced their numbers, as had the Winnebago War, and left them much weakened.

In due course, the Iroquois arrived, and finding the village deserted, they beseiged the fort. They occupied a position on the approach and kept up a desultory fire for several days but Tonti did not allow the defenders to return fire. At last the Iroquois made their assault.

When they neared the palisade, they were met with a withering barrage of musket and cannon fire. The Iroquois sustained such heavy losses that they withdrew.

This marked the last major Iroquois incursion into the Illinois River country. However, their raids and lesser forays continued throughout the French period.

Shortly after this, Tonti and the Illini went on the offensive. Tonti and 200 warriors joined a large Candian army that invaded what is now upper New York State.

They attacked and burned numerous Iroquois villages along the Mohawk River, thus giving the Illinois some slight measure of revenge for the Iroquois attacks against them.

The Illinois were still in possession of most of their lands at this time, but they were greatly weakened by these conflicts with the Iroquois. This would make them vulnerable to the incursions of the northern tribes, particularly the Fox.

By this time they were greatly diminished in their ability to exert their tribal will at any distance through warfare. The decline accelerated.
The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox (Meskwaki) included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, the Illinois captured the nephew of Oushala, a Fox chief, and burned him alive.

Shortly thereafter, the Fox sent a strong force down into the Illinois Country to exact revenge.

They forced the Illinois to take refuge on top of Starved Rock (Fort St. Louis) where earlier Tonti had driven off the Iroquois. A runner was sent to Fort de Chartres for help.

However, by the time de Broisbriand and a relief force of French and Indians arrived, the Fox had already retreated, leaving behind 120 dead.
Angered by Fox raids, the French decided to take the offensive. In 1726, the Marquis de Beauharnois, the Governor of Canada, sent an expedition against the Fox which linked up with a force from Illinois.

The Illinois contingent was commanded by Desliettes, the Commandant of the Illinois District. He led a force of twenty French soldiers and 500 Illiniwek warriors. However, the Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked.

In the summer of 1730, the Iroquois League invited the Meskwaki nation to join them. Under constant pressure by the French and their allies, the Fox chose to accept. But to get to the Iroquois, they had to pass across Illiniwek territory.

The Fox dispatched an envoy to negotiate passage, but a quarrel ensued. No doubt the Illinois were reluctant to see their two greatest enemies united.

A short time later near Starved Rock, the Fox captured the nephew of a Cahokia chief and burned him at the stake. That of course ended any possibility of a peaceful resolution to the problem.

The Fox fled the area with the Illinois in pursuit. The Illinois caught up with the Fox in the open prairie buffalo country of Central Illinois. This was near the headwaters of the Sangamon River in present-day McClean County, Illinois.

The Fox retreated into a grove of trees and set up a defensive position which they fortified. The fortification consisted of a log palisade reinforced with earth. A series of trenches connected the fortification with a nearby small river.

Within the compound were cabins. The roofs of these were formed by laying woven mats across sturdy rafters, then covering the construction with earth. The Illini lay siege to this fort and dispatched runners to summon their allies.

St. Ange marched north from Fort de Chartres with a force of 100 Frenchmen and 400 Cahokia, Peoria, and Missouri warriors, arriving on August 17, 1730. Two hundred Kickapoo, Mascouten, and Potawatomi had already arrived on the scene to aid the Illinois. De Villiers and Reaume came down from St. Joseph, Michigan at the head of a force of 400 Sauk, Potawatomi, and Miami.

Piankeshaw and Ouiatenon warriors led by de Noyelle arrived from the Miami post on September 1st. De Noyelle brought an order from the Governor of Canada that there would be no peace made with the Meskwaki.

This fight was to the finish. In all, about 1000 Fox (including women and children) were attacked by about 1,400 allied warriors.

The Fox fortification was surrounded and all avenues of retreat were cut off. Food supplies quickly ran low. The Fox threw their children out to their enemies, telling them to eat them. In fact most of these children were probably adopted into the besieging tribes. The Fox held out valiantly for 23 days.

At last on the night of September 8th, a heavy rainstorm struck. The Fox made their escape in the darkness and rain but soon the allies caught up with them. From 800 to 1000 Fox men, women, and children were killed.

The Fox would not again rise to any sort of strength until almost a century later, as allies to the Sauk Chieftain Blackhawk.

The French campaign against the Chickasaw Indians in 1739-1740 used the Illinois Indians as allies. The French lost this war.

By allying themselves faithfully with the French, the Illinois cast themselves as mortal enemies of the Chickasaw. The two nations continued to raid each other into the English period in Illinois.

With end of the French and Indian War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the end of the French occupation of the Illinois country was at hand.

The Illinois Confederacy were the Indians most loyal to the French. Their reward was a steady deterioration of relations with neighboring Native American tribes which had not been particularly good to begin with.

By alligning themselves with the French, the Illinois had antagonized the Fox, the Iroquois, the Chickasaw and the Potawatomi nations, to say nothing of the English. And now the English considered the Illinois Country to be theirs.

The colonies secured independance from Great Britain during the American Revolution and treaties were made with the Illiniwek and other Indian tribes. The Illinois had already began their decline. They had too many enemies among the other tribes, and their European ally, France, had been driven from North America.

Then in 1802, the Kaskaskia skirmished with the Shawnee in southern Illinois. The already depleted Kaskaskia lost more warriors who simply could not be replaced.

After that time, the Shawnee traveled as they pleased across southern Illinois. The Kaskaskia could no longer defend their traditional boundaries.

By this time, they had lost not only many warriors, but over 700 women and children, making it virtually impossible for the Illiniwek population to regain its former numbers.

When the Illinois Indians entered into their final decline in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century, the rejuvenated Fox, their Sauk kinsmen, the Kickapoos and the Potawatomi occupied the Illinois river valley that was once the heart of the Illiniwek country.

Today, the decendants of the Illinois Indians are known as the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma

ArcticCaliforniaNortheastGreat BasinGreat Plains
NW CoastPlateauSoutheastSouthwestSub Arctic