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.
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
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."
In this context, European and Native American cultures mingled. Europeans
and Native Americans reached understandings of one another, often built
upon fundamental misconceptions, that facilitated good relations and
trade. Many French trappers and traders married Indian women, beginning
a pattern of cross-cultural kinship ties and creolization.
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 after 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
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
in the unsuccessful War of 1812. The United States secured its Northwest
Territories in the War of 1812, and shattered Tecumseh's dream of a
powerful new Indian confederacy able to stem white settlement in the
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.
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of Plains Indian Women. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America,
Black Hawk. An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois
Cayton, Andrew R.L. and Fredrika J. Teute. Contact Points: American
Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830.
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Davis, James E. Frontier Illinois. Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press, 1998.
Hauser, Raymond. "The Illinois Indian Tribe: From Autonomy and
Self-Sufficiency to Dependency and Depopulation." Journal of
the Illinois State Historical Society May 1976: 134-135.
Mancall, Peter C. and James H. Merrell, eds. American Encounters:
Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850.
New York: Routledge, 2000.
Nichols, Roger L. Black Hawk and the Warrior's Path. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1992.
Nichols, Roger L. American Indians in U.S. History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics
in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge University
Whitney, Ellen M. "Indian History and the Indians of Illinois."
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