Native American Relations

by Drew VandeCreek

Several Native American tribes inhabited the territory that became the State of Illinois in 1818. Sac and Fox predominated in Northern Illinois. Kickapoo made their homes in central Illinois. Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwene, Peoria and Tamaroa lived along the Mississippi, Wabash and Illinois Rivers of southern and central Illinois. Together, these five tribes formed the Illinois Confederacy, a loose alliance designed to provide mutual defense against more powerful neighbors.

Most Native Americans relied upon a combination of agriculture, hunting and gathering for their subsistence. Indian women supervised the farming of maize (or corn), beans, squash, pumpkins and other crops, and also gathered fruits, nuts, and roots from the countryside. Men organized fishing and hunting parties and enjoyed considerable leisure time devoted to athletic contests, gambling and other pursuits.

Illinois' Native American inhabitants embraced religious beliefs quite unlike the Christianity that white European settlers brought to North America. Indians organized their spiritual lives around no central creed or dogma. Rather, individual tribes developed rites and practices based upon a communitarian spiritual sense and reverence for nature. Among most tribes everyday acts assumed a ceremonial significance. Western visitors, conquerors and interpreters have struggled to grasp Native American religion and culture to this day.

Sioux perform Ceremony of the Thunder Birds

Native American society provided individuals with considerable personal freedom. Families, clans, and tribes made localized decisions in the absence of central authority.

Despite this emphasis upon individualism, tribal warfare marked Native American life. Most of the Illinois tribes took up annual hostilities with their neighbors as a normal part of intertribal relations. War commanded considerable importance in Native American cultures, and young men took up arms in search of heroism and honor that would earn them the respect of their peers.

In the seventeenth century the face of warfare changed for Illinois Indians, however. Attacks from powerful Sioux to the north and west pushed warfare beyond its familiar, limited scope and taxed the confederation's small resources. By the 1650 the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, equipped with firearms provided by Dutch traders, had pushed the Sac, Fox and Kickapoo from lower Michigan and into northern Illinois and Wisconsin. Eventually the Iroquois reached Illinois itself, further damaging the Illinois Confederacy.

French missionaries and settlers arriving in Illinois in the late seventeenth century encountered an Illinois Confederation buckling under the pressure of attacks from the North and East. From the 1650s until the Sac Chief Black Hawk’s defeat in 1832 Illinois would remain a contested region among Native Americans.

The arrival of great European empires and the rise of the United States of America further complicated social and political relations in this period. French and later British traders and settlers established themselves in Illinois as parts of a unique cultural mixture historians have dubbed a "Middle Ground."1

In this context, European and Native American cultures mingled. Europeans and Native Americans reached understandings of one another, often built upon fundamental misconceptions, which facilitated good relations and trade. Many French trappers and traders married Indian women, beginning a pattern of cross-cultural kinship ties.

The unstable, though generally peaceful and prosperous, relations of the Middle Ground characterized life in Illinois until the French and Indian War of the mid-eighteenth century. In this conflict Native American tribes aligned themselves with the French and suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of the British Empire.

Despite their opposing roles in the conflict, the British proved a temporary ally for Native Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the period afterBlack Hawk, War Chief of the Sac and Fox the French and Indian War the British had declared the northwestern region encompassing today's Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana to be off-limits to settlement by English settlers. The outcome of the American Revolution shattered this promising arrangement for the Indian tribes, and sent American settlers pouring westward. First arriving along the southern Illinois River bottoms, Americans pushed northward onto the prairie after 1820, and established Chicago.

Despite Americans' claim to the Northwest Territories, the British remained a major presence there for several decades and collaborated with Indian forces led by the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh to battle Americans, unsuccessfully, in the War of 1812. The United States secured its Northwest Territories in that conflict, and demolished Tecumseh's dream of a powerful new Indian confederacy able to stem white settlement in the West.

Illinois represented the next frontier as white settlers pushed westward after the War of 1812. Meeting little resistance from the shattered Illinois Confederacy, white Illinoisans' hunger for land met its first resistance there in 1832 when Chief Black Hawk, a representative of the once-powerful Sac and Fox tribes, balked at his band's banishment west of the Mississippi and returned to Illinois. His decisive defeat at the hands of the Illinois militia and federal forces marked the end of the Middle Ground and the beginning of Illinois' integration into the United States of America.

  • 1. Richard White The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)