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Illinois Statehood and the
Demise of the Native American

Kristina Blatchford
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

Fifteenth-century Native Americans occupied a continent they had discovered 15,000 to 25,000 years ago after migrating up through Asia, across Siberia, over the Bering Strait into Alaska, and down through what is now the continental United States. Native Americans populated what became Illinois with numerous tribes as well as nations, each with a thoroughly developed culture and tradition. Illinois was a beautiful rolling prairie with blue-stemmed prairie grass and random masses of tall flowers spotting the fertile soil. The prairie, broken by stands of timber, covered almost half the state. Herds of buffalo grazed the grassy land while numerous deer, elk, bear, and wild turkey roamed the dense woodlands. The Native American inhabitants were the Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Sac, Fox, Shawnee, Miami, and Illinois Confederation. They generally lived peacefully as they found the resources of Illinois ample for all their needs. The tribes gathered, hunted, and farmed. The disruption of this well-developed human ecology began with the onslaught of white settlement. By 1818, when Illinois entered the Union, most of the land belonged to the federal government, and the Native Americans' lifestyle had undergone drastic changes.

The introduction of European culture to Native Americans began with the arrival of Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. They were the first white men to encounter the Native Americans in Illinois. They made Illinois a French settlement and lived in peace with the Native Americans. Marquette was known for his gentle spirit and zeal for converting the Native Americans to Christianity. Furthermore, he fluently spoke Algonquin, the language family of most of the Illinois tribes. His brief period of missionary work in America showed a great respect for the native culture. Despite life-threatening illness, his final duties included preaching to a group of five hundred chiefs and elders accompanied by fifteen hundred interested tribal members at the Kaskaskia village. When Marquette died, the Native Americans took his remains with great reverence to the mission at St. Ignace.

The French had always treated the Native Americans as equals; they never trespassed on their land and were always generous and honest in trading. When war broke out between the French and British, the Native Americans were used as pawns in the struggle. Each white nation tried to stir up the Native Americans against the other, paying generously for white scalps and prisoners. One chief said to an Englishman, "you and the French are like two edges of a pair of shears, and we are the cloth which is cut to pieces between them." The British considered Native Americans inferior and often treated them brutally. The British often cheated the Native Americans when trading and would do anything to obtain their land. Even with the help of many Native Americans, the French lost the war. This loss resulted in a 1763 treaty that gave the British control of all French land east of the Mississippi. That treaty became a fateful document for the Native Americans of this area. The British now controlled Illinois.

When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the British lost Illinois. Five years before, George Rogers Clark had conceived a plan to take the Illinois country from England. His success in capturing the British posts of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes was a major factor that led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. That treaty resulted in England ceding a large portion of the Northwest Territory to the United States. The acquisition of the new land fostered the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance by Congress in 1787 in an attempt to set up a governing policy for the new land of the Northwest Territory. That document stated that Native Americans would be treated with fairness in all situations. Regrettably, the intent was never followed.

Native American history can be organized into several periods. From 1532 to 1776 European colonial powers believed that even conquered peoples had the right to remain a nation. The conqueror had the authority to displace the sovereign and assume dominion over the nation. From 1776 to 1783 the attitude of the United States toward the Native Americans was greatly influenced by the Revolutionary War, as evidenced by a desire to keep them from becoming British allies. The United States' position was: "Conquest renders the tribe subject to the legislative power of the United States and, in substance, terminates the external powers of sovereignty of the tribe, namely, its power to enter into treaties with foreign nations, but not itself affect the internal sovereignty of the tribe, that is, its powers of self government." From 1783 to 1800, the United States began to make treaties with Native Americans, and commissioners were instructed to draw boundary lines, maintain peace, and compel recognition of the United States' dominion over the tribes. Settlement of Illinois increased from 1800 to 1818, and Native American freedoms diminished. Culturally, freedom was taken away from the Native Americans by attempts to Christianize and educate them. Their remaining freedom was effectively taken away from them by the removal of tribes to the new Indian territory. Removal had been proposed as the solu-


tion to the "Indian problem" since the founding of colonies in the seventeenth century, and bit by bit tribal lands were reduced by conquest and treaty revisions.

Treaties rapidly destroyed Native Americans' prominence. A chronology of Native American treaties, prepared by Rupert Costo, gives an idea of the high number of treaties between 1800 and 1818. During that time there were twenty-eight treaties, ceding land from the Native Americans of Illinois. The treaty of Edwardsville in 1818 was significant, for it ceded the lands of the Illinois Confederation, greatly contributing to their disappearance. The impact of such losses was severe. The tribes could no longer sustain themselves as their means of support was stripped away. As a Potawatomi chief once wrote:

Our country was given to us by the Great Spirit, who gave it to us to hunt upon, and to make down our beds upon when we die. And he would never forgive us, should we now give it away. We have sold you a great tract of land, already; but it is not enough! We sold it to you for the benefit of your children, to farm and live upon. We have but little left.... We have now hardly enough left to cover the bones of our tribe.

Black Hawk, chief of the Sac tribe, bemoaned the fate of his people at the hands of encroaching white settlers.
Black Hawk

When Illinois entered the union in 1818, less than a third of the state was settled by whites. The federal government held legal title to most of Illinois in 1818, but Native Americans still occupied the northern quarter of the state. When the French explorers entered the Mississippi valley, they found a confederacy of five tribes named the Illinois. The Illinois Confederation had disappeared as distinct tribes by 1818 due to white settlement. The only evidence available as to the Native American population of Illinois in 1818 is an estimate made by the secretary of war in 1815, but his report refers to the tribes as a whole, and not just the groups in Illinois. It is estimated that in 1818, the year Illinois gained statehood, 1,600 Kickapoo still lived along the Sangamon valley, 4,800 Potawatomi occupied the whole northeastern part of Illinois, 3,200 Sauk and 1,200 Fox lived near the mouth of the Rock River, and 2,400 Winnebago occupied a small portion of land between the Rock River and the eastern watershed of the Mississippi.

In 1818 the Native Americans remaining in Illinois retained little of their forefathers' independence. They practiced agriculture in a primitive manner, and they came to rely upon the white trader for a large number of articles which, introduced, had become necessities. Their resources did not keep pace with their growing wants and needs, and their condition turned wretched. They were regarded by the government as wards to be cared for as well as possible enemies to be feared.

It is sometimes difficult for us to realize that a nation like the Sac or Fox amounted to no more than a few thousand. Such a group cannot make many mistakes; a bad alliance, a faulty campaign, a divisive faction, or an epidemic of smallpox can reduce the population to the point where survival is improbable. Fighting the U.S. Army was an example of a critical disruption affecting survival and a serious break in the necessary routine of Native American life. Their willingness and ability to fight was determined by the basic realities of life. In the spring and fall they had to tend their crops and store supplies. Successful hunting expeditions were also essential for their families to survive the harsh winters. The American military's persistent offensives disrupted the fiber of the family and tribal life of the Natives. Military commanders caused severe hardships for the Native Americans by destroying their villages, crops, and food stores. The result was insecurity, loss of morale, starvation, and dissent among the warring tribes. Although their military defeats were not disastrous, the destruction of their villages and food supplies forced them to seek peace. They gave up their lands unwillingly in order to save what remained of the tribes.

The history of Illinois statehood would not be complete without including the well developed, complex cultures of the Native American nations and the treatment of these nations by the European settlers. Today the state of Illinois, named for the


Illiniwek Indians, signifies this debt to the first inhabitants as well as by numerous Native American names given to various towns and landmarks. Illinois should not forget that Native Americans lived in relative peace while using the resources of the plains and woodlands long before the arrival of the white settlers. When Sac leader Black Hawk, who had been defeated in the Black Hawk War, looked back on the time of removal, he said, "How different is our situation now than what it was in those days! Then we were as happy as buffalo on the plains— but now we are as miserable as the hungry, howling wolf on the prairie! . . . Why did the Great Spirit ever send the whites to drive us from our homes, and introduce among us poisonous liquors, disease and death?"

The Native Americans unwillingly sacrificed lands, culture, wildlife, family, and in many cases, lives to the insatiable white settlers. Unfortunately, the ultimate sacrifice by these people was never appreciated by those who forced the first inhabitants from Illinois.—[From Solon J. Buck, Illinois in 1818; Rupert Costo, Indian Treaties; Miriam Gurko, Indian America; William T. Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State: James Scott, The Illinois Nation; Robert P. Sulton, The Prairie State; and Anthony Wallace, Prelude to Disaster.]


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